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Council Showing More of an Appetite for Civilian Oversight of Police

Published on Thursday, June 4, 2020 | 10:33 am
A screenshot from police camera footage taken during the controversial violent arrest of Christopher Ballew on November 9, 2018. Image courtesy Pasadena Police

[Updated] The Public Safety Committee was scheduled to discuss police accountability and at 2 p.m. today, June 4, but the meeting has been postponed.

The renewed interest in the topic comes as protesters continue to march in opposition to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota.

“In theory, it sounds like an appropriate action to take. If something inappropriate happens to have a group of outside of people who are representative of the community, but are also somewhat knowledgeable about police activities providing a level of oversight, it sounds pretty inarguable really.”

Tornek called the issue a “perennial” topic. Tornek and the Council have expressed strong support for Police Chief John Perez.

“We’ve already had our cases here in Pasadena,” Hampton said. “We can’t pretend that this is just happening in Minneapolis. This is happening all over the place,” said Vice Mayor Tyron Hampton. “People are protesting, because they feel as if they’re not being heard.”

The issue has come up several times dating back to the death of local barber Michael Bryant in 1993. Bryant died after being electrocuted with Taser darts while standing in a swimming pool after leading officers from LA, Pasadena and San Marino on a chase to Highland Park before leaving his car, running up a hill, jumping into a swimming pool and then being surrounded by officers while standing waist-deep in the water.

After he was Tasered and taken into custody, he was hogtied and placed face down in a police car where he suffocated. Bryant, who was overweight, died as a result of positional asphyxiation due to cocaine intoxication and being placed face down in the back seat of a squad car.

Calls for transparency grew in intensity in 2004 after two officer-involved fatal incidents involving 30-year-old Lamont Robinson, who was suspected of having cocaine in his mouth was choked into unconsciousness and later died, and Maurice Clark, also 30, was shot to death by police returning fire. Clark was killed two weeks after Robinson lost consciousness, leading to his death.

The call came up again in 2012 after police fatally shot 19-year-old Kendrec McDade.

The department and the city have been more transparent. Several times reporters have been allowed to review footage of police encounters that resulted in complaints. The majority of the footage shown to reporters, appeared to show officers acted properly and the complaints were unfounded. But in the Christopher Ballew case, perhaps the city’s most controversial case since McDade, City Manager Steve Mermell ordered the release of all footage of the incident released.

Ballew was punched by officers and struck with a police baton during a traffic stop in nearby Altadena in 2017.

“The question is are we giving a voice to the voiceless? And the answer is no,” said Councilman John Kennedy. “And so the voiceless wants to be heard and this is their language on how to be heard. So what we know is that black men, particularly in America, but all black people in America continued to be oppressed by an unjust system and the system is not just one system. There are multiple systems. There is implicit bias. There is now hopefully going to be a national reckoning that we must have more than just a conversation about race.”

In the past, the council has been reluctant to have a meaningful discussion on civilian oversight.

“I was trying to balance the necessary research and discussion needed for additional accountability measures to be put in place with the reality of ‘the votes’ I knew were not there both among public safety committee membership and the city council as a whole,” said former District 1 Councilmember Jacque Robinson, who previously chaired the Public Safety Committee.

Robinson said now is the perfect time to not just revisit the conversation and prior reports, but also to take decisive action. “Notably there are two sitting Councilmembers running for Mayor right now and others who have upcoming elections next cycle. This will be a referendum on their leadership. Actions speaks louder than words and here in Pasadena, we have a problem with studying the hell out of an issue and shelving reports without taking action. I see no reason why the votes should not be there this time around.”

And the votes seem to be there, but Robinson could be right. The conversation could be bogged down in what civilian oversight looks like in Pasadena.

“If people don’t have confidence or they want more accountability or transparency we should absolutely provide that because that’s our job as elected officials to be responsive to the, you know, to the community,” said Margaret McAustin. “What that looks like is complicated. And I don’t have the answer to that, but I know that we want to be responsive to our community. We try to be, can always do better. And so it’s something we have to take a look at.”

Protests in all 50 states have broken out since Floyd was killed on May 25.

Floyd, who was African American, was killed on May 25 in Powderhorn, Minnesota during an encounter with police. Police placed a knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes during the arrest, despite pleas by the 46-year old father of two that he could not breathe.

During the encounter, a desperate and dying Floyd begged for his life.

“Don’t kill me,” and “Please, the knee in my neck,” “I can’t breathe.”

Bystanders pleaded to police, but they did not respond. At least one witness said the police were “enjoying that” during the incident.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, was arrested on Friday and has been charged with second degree murder.

“I continue to support police oversight that is effective and responsible.  I will always remain open to these discussions, particularly because it involves the potential use of force by our Police department against people in our city,” said Councilman Victor Gordo. “What happened to Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis is unacceptable to all of us and must serve as a reminder that we must work together.  I ask everyone – residents and police officers alike – to keep an open mind and be open to honest dialogue.  We should always strive to be better.”

On Wednesday, three additional officers present at the scene were arrested and charged with crimes. Across the country, other police officers have reprimanded their law enforcement co-workers for abusive acts during the protests.

“About four years ago, we had a long discussion on civilian oversight,” said Councilman Gene Masuda. “We had consultants, we had a lot of people come in and give their views about it, for and against. We’ll see what happens. I’m open to having that discussion, but to have it is another thing. We’ll have to see.”

Implementing a civilian oversight committee could be difficult. Several issues would have to be dealt with, including charter reform.

Activists railed against former City Manager Michael Beck’s initial refusal to release results of the McDade probe, but under the current City Charter an auditor or inspector general would report to the city manager, who could be prohibited from releasing any material as personnel files.

Per the Charter, currently the council only can hire and fire the City Manager, City Attorney and City Clerk.

Changing the model would require a change to the City Charter.

Also California state law prohibiting the release of personnel files could hamper investigations.

“I think the prior administration was not supportive of [civilian oversight] and frankly could have benefited more from that,” said Councilman Andy Wilson. “I think it’s worth at least another conversation.

“I do want to go on the record by saying. I do think Chief Perez is really taking a fairly different approach and I think it’s having a positive impact on the community. That’s not to say that there isn’t more that to be done. Because I do think there, there is always more that could be done and should be done.”

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