Civilians under fire
Chief considers ending relationship with civilian agency investigating police shootings
By André Coleman 03/25/2014
After 13 years, the civilian Office of Independent Review’s role in investigating local shootings involving police officers may have quietly come to an end.
On March 17, the OIR was not even mentioned when Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez announced to a City Council committee that he would be using the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to carry out investigations of officer-involved shootings.
“There have been calls for more independent reviews,” Sanchez told the Pasadena Weekly shortly after formally announcing the switch. “When there is a shooting, we will call in the Sheriff’s Department to investigate. That is an independent review. That’s what people have asked for. I am not sure if we are going to use the Office of Independent Review.”
Created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2001, the six-person agency — comprised of attorneys with backgrounds in criminal law — provided oversight for the Sheriff’s Department, but also investigated controversial officer-involved shootings in other jurisdictions, including Pasadena. The OIR has investigated three of the last five officer-involved shootings in Pasadena. It is currently compiling a final report in the case of Kendric McDade, who was shot and killed by two Pasadena police officers in March 2012. The 19-year-old McDade was unarmed at the time of the incident. The two officers have since been cleared by Pasadena police and the District Attorney’s Office. The US Justice Department is still investigating the incident. The case is also the subject of two separate federal lawsuits filed by the teen’s parents.
The Sheriff’s Department currently investigates officer-involved shootings for 48 of the county’s 88 cities, as well as unincorporated areas. In 2012, the Sheriff’s Department was called upon to investigate three local officers accused of committing eight violations. The officers were eventually found innocent of all but one minor charge.
Following its probe of the McDade shooting — an investigation which the OIR has also not yet completed — sheriff’s officials also cleared Pasadena Officers Matthew Griffin and Jeffrey Newlin of any wrongdoing. McDade, who is black, was shot and killed after a man claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint by two African-American men.
Although sheriff’s officials provide incident reviews and investigation services, it does not make its finding public, as does OIR. Sanchez told the Weekly that the Sheriff’s Department would provide reports at the end of its investigations.
Sanchez said the change in policy was a move toward more transparency by the department and was needed. Several detectives who work in the homicide division — detectives who also handle the department’s internal investigations — have scored well on tests which could result in promotions. If that happens, personnel changes could temporarily impact the department’s ability to conduct investigations as new detectives conclude their training.
When contacted by the Pasadena Weekly on Monday, OIR Chief Attorney Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor, said he had not spoken to Sanchez since the announcement was made.
“I think the chief is saying the criminal investigation will be conducted by the sheriff’s bureau,” Gennaco said. “We are still having discussions about that. We are working it out.”
The announcement was made shortly after Sanchez completed a presentation to the Pasadena City Council’s Public Safety Committee on use-of-force incidents, which he said have declined over the past several years.
Sanchez announcement came one day before the Los Angeles Times reported that Sheriff’s Department Inspector General Max Huntsman had sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors recommending the county cut ties with the OIR. Huntsman said the group had failed to track data listing violent encounters between inmates housed in the county’s jail system and the deputies working there.
Last month, 20 deputies and department officials were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly committing acts of violence against inmates and conspiring to keep an FBI informant from testifying, among other charges.
“The office has had an attorney-client relationship with the sheriff, was housed within the department and assumed an integral role in the disciplinary system,” states Huntsman’s letter to the board. “This model has created the perception that OIR is not sufficiently independent to act as a civilian monitor. This perception is not entirely without basis.”
Huntsman also recommended the county stop working with attorney Merrick Bobb’s Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC). That group, which also reviews police shooting incidents, conducted the study “Assessing Police-Community Relations in Pasadena” in 2006.
Although Sanchez said the decision was made to increase transparency, Pasadena Councilman John Kennedy has requested the issue be placed back on the agenda of the Public Safety Committee for further discussion.
“Although I applauded Chief Sanchez’s decision to broaden the scope of [officer-involved shooting] investigations by engaging the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s investigatory arm, to the best of my knowledge this matter was not agendized for thorough discussion and review by the Public Safety Committee for public policy considerations that may not have been part of [Sanchez’s] internal private deliberations,” Kennedy wrote on March 19.
Sanchez, Kennedy noted, made what he called “a surprising announcement” about the Sheriff’s Department at the end of his presentation, which, he said, “precluded independent research, advance contemplation and the respect of an open participatory governance style or community input. The Public Safety Committee, council and the community deserve a better, more inclusive, process.”
Last year, Kennedy called on the city several times to fund a study of civilian police oversight committees. A motion for that study failed at the Public Safety Committee last October. Despite a lack of votes, it was forwarded to the council by Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, as an “information item.” But it again lacked the support of other council members.
“We have exhausted this topic at the Public Safety Committee and it is time for the council to bring this forth for discussion,” Robinson said.
So far, there are no plans to place the matter on the council’s agenda.
Mayor Bill Bogaard told the Weekly that a request was made by Robinson to place the item on the City Council agenda as an information item.
However, “Having in mind the subject of Police Department administration has been on the agenda time and time again, especially the review of officer-involved incidents, it has been sent to the city manager who has agreed to respond to Mr. Kennedy’s question in his weekly newsletter, which is published on Thursdays,” Bogaard said.
The newsletter is posted on the City Manager’s Web site.
“It is my belief that the decision to use the Sheriff’s Department for OIS investigations is an operational issue and is appropriately made by management,” Beck told the Weekly.