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Central Valley | Government & Elections | Police State and Prisons

The Issue of Police Accountability in Fresno
by Mike Rhodes ( editor [at] fresnoalliance.com )
Monday Jun 18th, 2012 8:31 PM
The Central California Criminal Justice Committee held a press conference to push the City of Fresno to include funding for an Independent Police Auditor. The press statement is below and the (9:46 minute) video of the Q & A following the press conference is also below.
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Fresno, California
June 18, 2012

The Central California Criminal Justice Committee, with the support of several other local community organizations, is here today to make two points about the Office of Independent Review, the funding for which is currently being considered by the Fresno City Council.

1. We believe the City Council should approve the Mayor’s request to fund the Office of Independent Review. The OIR as presently constituted is not perfect, but we believe that some outside oversight of Police Department actions is better than no outside oversight at all. The oversight body proposed in Mayor Swearengin’s budget request must be seen as a starting point for outside review. It is something that can be built upon and strengthened as time goes by.

2. We concur with the Fresno County Grand Jury and many other observers who say that to be truly effective, the OIR must have the power to conduct investigations and issue subpoenas. Effective police oversight bodies in other communities have those powers, and we need to work toward that goal here in Fresno.

It is shameful that Fresno currently has no mechanism for any outside review of police behavior. The OIR was abolished last June, after being in existence for only about 18 months. In February of last year, the Fresno County District Attorney’s office announced that it would no longer investigate officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths that happen in Fresno. That makes us the only city of our size in the State of California that has no outside body of any kind available to look into potential police abuses. Where is the accountability?

With no OIR and no D.A. investigations, citizens who feel that they have been wronged by the police have nowhere to go with their complaints other than the court system. This has led to numerous lawsuits, with the city paying out millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees. Two recent examples are the lawsuit in the Steven Vargas case that led to a 1.3 million dollar settlement, and the internal lawsuit by two deputy chiefs against Chief Dyer that cost the city 1.1 million dollars in settlement costs plus legal fees. It is possible that if those complaints had gone first before an independent oversight body that the complaints could have been resolved short of a lawsuit, saving the city millions. Since the argument before the City Council is being cast as a budget matter, it is critical that our city leaders realize that not having an OIR might be costing us more than having one.

One of the main advantages of independent oversight of the police is that it builds public confidence in the department. People want to have faith in their local police, but they do not believe the police are capable of objectively investigating themselves. Internal investigations are not the same as outside oversight, and the public knows the difference. Investigations by the police department’s internal affairs unit typically find that the officer has done nothing wrong, even when wrongdoing has occurred. Witness the Vargas case. It is only some kind of credible outside oversight that will convince the public that complaints against the police will be taken seriously.

It took more than ten years of effort, support from more than 50 organizations and thousands of individuals, support from The Fresno Bee, the Fresno County Grand Jury, two mayors, and Chief Dyer to finally establish the OIR back in 2009. Unfortunately, the position was never fully funded, never had adequate staff, and after only 18 months of operation it was disbanded. Surely Fresno can do better than this. All the reasons that led to the creation of the OIR still hold, and it is time for the City Council to do the right thing by re-establishing and even strengthening our only outside police oversight body.