From good to great

From good to great

Pasadena officials don’t have far to look for ways to improve the Police Department

By Kevin Uhrich 09/11/2013

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Mention the idea of forming a citizens’ commission to help oversee the doings of the Pasadena Police Department and some officials might say, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” or, “There’s no appetite for that here.”  

While having a board of citizens overseeing the department and its officers has been tried in the past, with two such advisory boards disbanded in 2010, a number of recent events have left many with not only an appetite for reform but hungering for better accountability from the department.

At the August meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Police Chief Phillip Sanchez reported that there have been 11 citizen complaints against Pasadena police officers so far this year. Of those, only one involved the use of force. According to Sanchez, of the 2,931 arrests made from January to Aug. 7, only 18 — less than 1 percent — involved the use of force. Eighty-nine complaints were filed against Pasadena police officers in 2012, according to Sanchez. Of those, 26 were sustained, resulting in 14 written warnings, 10 suspensions and the termination of
two sworn officers.

In his presentation, Sanchez did not mention the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old, a case in which the officers have been cleared by the department and the District Attorney’s Office, but one that remains under investigation by the Office of Investigative Review (OIR) and the crux of two ongoing civil rights lawsuits. Further, no names, dates or details were made available on any of the incidents mentioned by the chief.

Sanchez is also not likely to be very specific about the currently ongoing investigation of three officers who came under fire individually and collectively earlier this year for allegedly trying to influence witness testimony, inappropriately using an informant, failing to provide a copy of a search warrant when asked, harassing a suspect, unlawfully arresting someone, submitting a misleading police report and inappropriately recording a jailhouse conversation.

Though all of these claims were ultimately deemed unfounded, they were all pretty serious, with two more — failing to turn over evidence prior to trial and making an inappropriate comment — being sustained, and a claim of threatening a witness still under investigation. Much like the blizzard of statistics provided by Sanchez to the council committee, nowhere in that public statement about that probe are mentioned the names of the officers involved or those of the people making the claims. Nor are there any details about the claims themselves.

Even though Sanchez, when asked, confirmed the identities of the three cops under investigation, they were not mentioned in the press release, which he acknowledged was scrubbed of key details by attorneys for the police union and the city prior to its release.

Newly elected City Councilman John Kennedy, a former deputy police chief in Richmond, Va., appears to be the only council member willing to look at how other communities handle these types of issues. He doesn’t have very far to look for examples to share with his colleagues. Along with Los Angeles, such boards exist in Long Beach, San Diego, Riverside, Sacramento, Berkeley and San Francisco, to name a few regional cities. In many East Coast communities, citizen police panels have been operating since the 1970s.

After a brief Internet search, Seattle appears to be the latest West Coast city to have adopted this idea, with that board’s creation part of a settlement agreement between the city and the US Department of Justice over claims of excessive force being used by Seattle cops. To avoid a federal lawsuit, the department last October settled with the Department of Justice, in part by forming the Community Police Commission.

That commission, according to its Web site and the US Attorney’s Office, is being assisted by a court-ordered monitor, in this case Merrick Bobb of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), which has been monitoring the LA County Sheriff’s Department for more than two decades. Bobb and his team have made it their business to monitor law enforcement agencies around the country that find themselves in similar situations.

Over the years, Bobb has earned the respect of every law enforcement agency he’s ever investigated, primarily because he doesn’t pull punches. A former deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission in 1991, then general counsel that year to the Kolts Commission, which investigated the Sheriff’s Department, and since 1993 special counsel to the LA County Board of Supervisors regarding the Sheriff’s Department, Bobb is thorough, fair and methodical, with a reputation that has put his work above reproach. In fact, in 2008 PARC evaluated the Pasadena Police-Mediation and Dialog Program, which was developed by former Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian and involved a combination of community forums and dispute mediation programs between police officers and the people complaining about them. It would be hard to imagine Melekian objecting to Bobb and PARC taking a look at the Pasadena Police Department to see how it could improve.

The fact is Pasadena already has a pretty good Police Department, just as Sanchez said. The question is why be satisfied with just being good enough when it can be model for the country with just a little help from concerned citizens and professional police department repairman Merrick Bobb?

For anyone interested, PARC’s number in Los Angeles is (213) 623-5757.

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