[Updated July 28, 2020 | 9:45 a.m.] The Pasadena City Council’s dialogue on increased civilian oversight of the Police Department will continue until at least next week and possibly beyond that.
That was the takeaway Monday after a grueling City Council session in which members discussed, debated and at times bickered for more than four hours over a police-reform issue that has gained traction in Pasadena, as it has in many cities nationwide, since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other well-documented incidents around the U.S.
In the end, the Council took no action on a specific proposal put forth by Mayor Terry Tornek and Councilmember John J. Kennedy – who are both members of the Council’s Public Safety Committee – to form a Community Police Oversight Commission coupled with an Independent Police Auditor hired by the City Manager.
Instead – after what Tornek said had been a planned, robust discussion of the proposal with no vote intended for Monday – the Council agreed to continue discussions on the matter until next Monday’s meeting.
But, significantly, the Council also agreed to discuss next week two alternative possibilities for an oversight model that were suggested by Vice Mayor Tyron Hampton.
Hampton also sits on the Public Safety Committee along with Tornek, Kennedy and Councilmember Steve Madison – and during last week’s committee meeting, Hampton said the Tornek/Kennedy plan “falls very short of true changes” because it fails to give subpoena power to any potential oversight body.
One of Hampton’s alternative suggestions Monday was an amendment to the City Charter that would establish an oversight commission and auditor model that would incorporate subpoena power. However, such power would require voter approval – meaning the Council would be looking at an Aug. 7 deadline to get the matter onto the November ballot.
That’s an unlikely path that Councilmembers seem not to have much appetite for – with Tornek going so far as to say, “I don’t think it will prevail,” at least in the short term.
However, Tornek said the charter-amendment suggestion at least merits more discussion next week, given that many of the more than 600 public comments the Council has received regarding civilian oversight have called for creating an oversight body with subpoena power. City Attorney Michele Bagneris was directed to begin crafting language for a possible ballot measure on charter reform.
Hampton’s other suggestion was to re-establish the city prosecutor’s office – which was merged into the city attorney’s office some 20 years ago – and hire an independent police auditor who would report to that prosecutor.
That plan, Hampton said, would guarantee independence of the auditor because the office would be outside the purview of the city manager, who also supervises the police department. That clear line of demarcation, Hampton said, would also strengthen the credibility of any oversight model in the public’s eye.
That’s “actually a way, without a charter reform, to actually do exactly what it is you’re saying you’re supportive of doing,’’ Hampton said to Tornek and Kennedy.
“The purpose of this discussion is to have a discussion,’’ Tornek said. “I welcome that idea [but] it will require some investigation by the city attorney’s office.”
Details of Hampton’s city-prosecutor plan can be found here.
Most of Monday’s discussion focused on the Tornek/Kennedy plan, which would consist of 13 members appointed by the Council and nominated as follows: one by each member of the Council, including the mayor; one by the city manager; one by the chief of police; and three by community groups with specific qualifications.
According to a report from Tornek and Kennedy, the proposed new commission would “receive community feedback and complaints and refer them for further review; monitor and receive reports on hiring and training; monitor and publish statistics on uses of force, complaints and outcomes; provide input on policy recommendations prior to adoption; receive reports from the independent police auditor regarding critical incidents, policies, and other matters; and produce a publicly available annual report.’’
“Furthermore, the commission would be charged with reporting back to the City Council with sufficient time prior to the 2022 general election, on any proposed changes to the oversight structure that would necessitate a charter amendment,’’ the staff report says.
The plan also calls for an independent police auditor who would be appointed by City Manager Steve Mermell. Among that auditor’s duties would be to: “review investigations of all uses of deadly force and in-custody deaths to determine if the investigations were complete, thorough, objective, and fair;’’ and “review investigations of personnel complaints of bias-based policing.’’
Tornek and Kennedy further advocated for their plan during Monday’s meeting.
“It is more than the community could have dreamed of five years ago, when even lesser measures were thwarted by the Council at that time,’’ said Kennedy, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, who has tried and failed in the past to shepherd police reform through the Council, lastly in 2016.
“I’ve been bruised through this process, and part of the objective is to get to a place where my colleagues can hopefully unanimously support what we’ve offered. If that were to occur, I think we’d send the right message to the community,’’ Kennedy added.
“I need to convince my colleagues how critically important this is as a first step, and then let’s see how this works.’’
For his part, Tornek called the plan “a significant and positive step toward civilian police oversight,’’ adding, “This model is something that can be implemented by the Council immediately.’’
Tornek also took on critics who questioned the teeth of the proposal because it lacks official subpoena power.
“If this independent auditor is within the purview of the city manager’s office, all the information would be available to this independent auditor without the necessity of a subpoena power,’’ Tornek said.
“The critical point here is … if the independent auditor is in the city manager’s office, that office will have access to all of the information that developed in an investigation.’’
He also said there is room for police oversight to grow, if needed, based on empirical data gathered by the proposed commission.
“It will allow us, if implemented, to gain the kind of experience with civilian police oversight which would then dictate or allow us to understand what was adequate or what potentially was inadequate, and if it was felt that the oversight offered by this construct was inadequate, we would then have a predicate for further action to go before the voters in 2022, for example, with a specific charter amendment based on experience rather than speculation,’’ Tornek said.
Other Councilmembers were not so enthusiastic.
Madison reiterated points he made in the Public Safety Committee meeting, questioning the speed at which the proposal is landing before the City Council, and whether the Public Safety Committee might be acting in haste amid nationwide calls for police reform. Madison also said he was concerned that, with Tornek up for reelection in November, politics could be a factor.
“I do feel like we’ve moved pretty quickly and there may be a number of reasons for that,’’ he said.
Madison also questioned possible “unintended consequences’’ of the Tornek/Kennedy plan, wondering “if this would dilute the authority and the responsibility of the Public Safety Committee and the full Council [to oversee the police department] – and I think the truthful answer to that is yes.’’
“By its very definition it will be a political body – there will be people that will be interested in serving on this commission because of political interests as well as all the best intentions,’’ he said. “And yet they will not be in any way, shape or form accountable to the community that we all represent, whereas each of us [on the Council] is.’’
“Some could even see that as a way of very definitely escaping our own accountability on these issues, by sort of sloughing this off to some appointed commission and saying … ‘no longer our watch,’ ’’ Madison said.
Gordo also questioned the transparency of the Public Safety Committee’s process, saying, “This is not a recommendation of the Public Safety Committee, this is a recommendation of two members of the Public Safety Committee.’’
(Hampton and Madison did not endorse the plan in committee, and it went before the Council on Monday without a recommendation from Public Safety.)
“I support oversight, [but] I support it by people who are accountable to the voters,’’ Gordo said – a reference to keeping oversight in the hands of the Public Safety Committee and city manager’s office.
Gordo said the Tornek/Kennedy plan was the product of two members who “ran off and drafted a proposal in secret and they come back and present it … almost as a fait accompli. This is not in my view a public process.”
At one point, Tornek accused Gordo of playing politics with his comments.
Further, Gordo also suggested during the lengthy and wide-ranging debate Monday that any oversight enhancements the Council might consider not be limited to the police – but to all the city’s departments.
Tornek said such an idea could be revisited by the Council in the future but was “a little bit beyond the scope of what we were proposing today.”
This will all be continued next Monday … and likely beyond.