As our recent cover story, “The night they pulled me over” (by Stephen James, SN&R, April 10) pointed out, sometimes a simple traffic stop by police can turn into a waking nightmare.
Unfortunately, complaints involving the alleged use of excessive force and other questionable tactics by Sacramento County and city law-enforcement officers have not been uncommon during the past decade. In fact, such complaints were the driving force behind the creation of the city’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) in 1999.
Until then, citizens who felt they had been wrongfully accused and abused by the Sacramento Police Department had only one place to voice their complaints: the police department itself. Allegations were investigated by the officer’s immediate supervisor and turned over to internal affairs and the district attorney’s office if further investigation was required—a classic case of the foxes guarding the henhouse. District attorneys work with the police every day to build cases and need their cooperation.
Now, citizens can voice complaints with the semi-independent OPA by calling (916) 808-5704 or by logging on to www.cityofsacramento.org/cityman/monitor.html.
With limited resources, OPA director Don Casimere and his staff of two have done an admirable job since the creation of the office. Casimere, a former Berkeley police officer, brings multiple academic degrees and 20 years of police-oversight experience to the position. So far, his monitoring activities have indicated that Sacramento citizens file far fewer police-misconduct charges than their counterparts do in similarly sized cities, such as Fresno. In fact, in the three years the OPA has been on the job, the number of excessive-force complaints filed has dropped steadily.
The decline may be in part attributable to Casimere’s efforts to create awareness of the issue within the police department. However, the fact that he works so closely with the department and works for the city also is cause for concern. As Amnesty International noted prior to the OPA’s creation, the office simply was granted the “power to review both ongoing and completed investigations of citizen complaints, although the actual investigations remained in the hands of the police. The monitor … has no subpoena or independent investigatory powers, and it remains to be seen how effective the appointment will be.”
The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), at www.nacole.org, points out that one of the major drawbacks of the auditor/ombudsman monitoring model used by Sacramento is that “the public may want more than one person’s oversight.” We have a feeling Casimere, a founding and current member of NACOLE, might agree with that. We certainly do. Nevertheless, citizens served by the Sacramento Police Department arguably enjoy more protection against abuse than do those served by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, where lack of any outside oversight remains the rule.