Voicing concern

New local group proposes citizen oversight of Chico PD in wake of last year’s killings

Margaret Swick was prompted to action after the officer-involved shootings of Desmond Phillips and Tyler Rushing last year.

Margaret Swick was prompted to action after the officer-involved shootings of Desmond Phillips and Tyler Rushing last year.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Learn more:
To find out more about Concerned Citizens for Justice, email chicocitizens4justice@gmail.com or attend the community meeting on June 18 at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library.

In August 2016, when news came out about two college women being manhandled by a Chico Police officer—and caught on cellphone video—Emily Alma took notice. It made her concerned about use of force by local law enforcement. A little over six months later, Desmond Phillips, a young man in the midst of a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by police. Shortly thereafter, she and a few other like-minded Chicoans formed a group to bring about change.

“What is law enforcement doing? Are they changing their culture as a result of this killing and other incidents that seemed to me to be an excessive use of force?” Alma said this week by phone. “Like those college women—the way they were treated was just outrageous to me. And I wasn’t seeing any real deep levels of change in the police culture.”

The group Alma joined is about 10 strong and calls itself Concerned Citizens for Justice. Since its formation last summer—and solidification following the officer-involved shooting death of Tyler Rushing last July—members have met and discussed how they can make a difference. Just last month, they finalized their vision statement and member Margaret Swick presented it to the Chico City Council. Now, she said, they’re ready to reach out to the greater community, increase membership and move forward on their goals. Chief among them is the creation of a citizens oversight committee for the Chico Police Department that would increase the transparency of the department while having some authority to hold it accountable.

“We want to create transparency, and at this point there is no transparency in police departments,” Swick said. “We also believe oversight is essential. The military, they have Congress watching them. But who’s watching police departments?”

Indeed, this is an issue that is being addressed in cities all over the United States, she added. “Across the country, citizens and civic groups want to see increased transparency within police departments and less use of force on troubled, vulnerable, perhaps addicted or even mentally ill citizens,” she told the City Council on March 20.

In addition to an oversight committee, and even as part of its functioning, Concerned Citizens for Justice is focused on a few key points: increasing the use of de-escalation tactics to minimize use of force, more training in crisis intervention, avoidance of implicit bias by law enforcement, demilitarization of the police force, support and care for officers and expansion of community-oriented policing.

Some of these areas are already being addressed by the Chico PD, Alma and Swick agreed. For instance, both said they are heartened by the fact that behavioral health specialists are now involved in crisis intervention. That’s not enough, though—those personnel are on the clock only for certain hours each day, Alma said.

“It’s a great step, and I know that it’s happened because of Desmond Phillips’ death and Tyler Rushing’s death,” she said. “But I have a young friend who recently was having a psychotic breakdown, but it was after 6 [p.m.]. And he was tased. I don’t know if [the officer] would have called for help, intervention, but you don’t have to be in a hurry to use a weapon. De-escalation is a very refined skill that has many layers. The first thing is not to be in a hurry.”

A citizens oversight committee ideally would be able to review the training requirements for officers in areas like de-escalation or crisis intervention, Swick said. From there, it could make recommendations based on best practices and community input on whether that training is adequate.

“We have an excellent police chief who is aware of the things that caused problems in Ferguson and other cities,” Swick said, “and he’s already increasing community involvement in policing. Yet, we want oversight.”

A committee would need to be approved by the City Council, and bringing forward such a proposal is still some time coming. “We’re still not sure exactly what it would look like,” Swick said. She is hoping that a community meeting in June will increase Concerned Citizens for Justice’s numbers and they’ll be able to better gauge the level of support for such a committee. They’ll move forward from there.

“Citizen oversight with some authority is necessary,” Alma said. “But we want to be clear—we want to work with law enforcement, to work with them and be part of the process of changing the culture.”