Policing the police
Citizens looking for more power over local police agencies
Whenever Ivy Anderson and David Johnson leave their home, they grab the usual: purse, wallet, cell phone, keys—and a camcorder. In fact, they never leave home without it.
The couple also have surveillance cameras in their house, with screens in the living room and the bedroom, to observe what is going on outside.
This is their way of monitoring the Davis Police Department (DPD) for what they say has been a decade of racial profiling and harassment because they are African-American.
Their mobile home sits in an unincorporated part of Solano County that falls just outside the jurisdiction of the DPD, yet they say they’ve seen Davis officers repeatedly come onto their property, shining lights into their home. They say they’ve collected about 15 hours of footage of Davis police officers’ intrusion and harassment of them and other ethnic minorities in the city in the three years since they started recording.
But several complaints to the DPD’s internal-affairs department have been deemed by police investigators to be unfounded.
Because of pending litigation by Anderson and Johnson against the DPD, a police spokesperson would not comment on the couple’s complaint. Anderson and Johnson have filed a lawsuit against the department and also have joined forces with other residents who hope to establish an independent citizens review board to oversee the city’s police department.
In September, the Davis Human Relations Commission (HRC) made a recommendation to the Davis City Council to establish an independent review. Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald, chairwoman of the HRC, said community members often come to the commission concerned about how they were treated by members of the police force.
Although the HRC does not track the number of complaints against the DPD, Greenwald said she has noticed a marked increase in the past year.
“I just got [a complaint] the other day from an African-American woman in a wheelchair,” she said. It is not just the number of complaints that concerns Greenwald, but also the nature of them.
Blacks for Effective Community Action (BECA), a Davis organization, sponsored a forum on August 22 concerning data the DPD released on juvenile arrests, adult arrests and traffic citations. Jann Murray-Garcia, president of BECA, said that African-Americans were stopped at disproportionately high rates.
“These members of the community feel that they have been profiled, especially African-American and Middle Eastern members,” Greenwald said. “The idea of an independent police review board sounds good.”
Review boards overseeing police departments are becoming more common. The first was established in Berkeley in 1973—prompted by conflicts between residents and police during a period of regular anti-war demonstrations. There are now more than 100 nationwide, including Sacramento’s Office of Public Safety Accountability (OPSA), which was created in 1999.
“The public begins to develop some trust in the [law-enforcement] agencies,” Jerry Enomoto, interim director of OPSA, said about its impact.
OPSA’s 2004 annual report shows complaints against the Sacramento Police Department declining every year since 2000. Between 2003 and 2004, total complaints decreased by 20 percent while force complaints dropped even more significantly, by 49 percent. The report attributed the decline to greater internal and external accountability.
State Assemblyman Dave Jones, while he was a Sacramento City Council member, called to have an independent review board established for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
“It’s a good idea and something that local law-enforcement agencies should do,” he said. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department does have a Community Advisory Board, but its members are appointed by the sheriff, and its function is a mystery to many.
“We’ve never been able to get copies of their minutes or information about their meetings,” said Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Williams said that the recent highly publicized allegations of mistreatment inside the county jail highlight the need for an independent review entity. “If you had somebody who was truly independent and could speak freely, that would help,” Williams said.
Last summer, citizens groups in West Sacramento also called for a citizens review panel in the wake of controversial beatings by police in that city (see “Suspicious behavior” by Cosmo Garvin, SN&R News, July 14) but the proposal has yet to surface on any city-council agenda.
Currently, the DPD has one of its own sergeants investigate complaints against the department, a system that both Greenwald and Enomoto said is like a “fox guarding a henhouse.”
Lt. Colleen Turay of the DPD would not specify how many complaints the department receives or say whether it is in support of having independent oversight, but she said it wants a “fair and accurate process of investigating complaints against officers.”
“We think we do a good job; we think we are fair and thorough in our investigations and do them timely,” Turay said. “It’s up to [members of the city] council if they feel it’s warranted to spend that kind of money out of the city budget.”
Though the number of police review boards across the country is increasing, Turay pointed out that it is still “minuscule” compared with the number of police departments and that most have internal investigations.
African-American organizations like the Sacramento chapter of the NAACP and BECA have joined individuals like Anderson and Johnson in demanding greater accountability for the DPD; however, Greenwald said it is not only African-Americans who feel targeted.
“Members of the community that are Caucasian have come forth and said that they have been profiled because their car is an older car or [they] have a different look about them,” she said.
The issue of whether to establish independent oversight for the DPD has not been on the city council’s agenda since September because of attention focused on Measure X, a special-election ballot measure to bring a new housing development to Davis.
Those concerned are making sure it is known that they haven’t given up. On October 26, the Yolo County American Civil Liberties Union organized a 40-minute demonstration outside the police station to symbolize the 40 minutes for which they believe an Arab Muslim minor was interrogated after being taken from her home for allegedly hitting a car in a parking lot. Again, the DPD’s Lt. Turay said she could not comment on the case because a legal complaint had been filed.
Greenwald hopes that with the November election over, the city of Davis will redirect its attention to this issue. “People say this is so anti-police, but it’s actually very pro-law enforcement and helps make the department even stronger.”