Anaheim’s Public Safety Board Wonders Why It Exists, A Year After Its Creation

Members of Anaheim’s Public Safety Board met last evening in the aftermath of the Ku Klux Klan melee and two controversial police shootings in February. It could’ve been a defining moment for the only board in OC that passes for civilian police oversight, but the meeting left more questions than answers. 

The Public Safety Board emerged out of the ashes of the Anaheim riots in 2012 amid calls for civilian oversight of police. What the public got instead was a nine-member lottery-selected panel bereft of subpoena powers. The board formed in 2014, but didn’t have its first real meeting until January 22, 2015. Tucked away at the Gordon Hoyt Conference Room on the second floor of the Anaheim West Tower—does anybody know where that’s at?— the quarterly meetings aren’t archived with audio and video recordings—only minutes posted well after the fact. 

And it’s that inefficiency that activists and even one board member openly criticized last night.

Activists took to the podium from the start to criticize the police response to the Klan rally and the department’s killings of Gustavo Najera and Danny Rendon last month. “I’m wondering what it is that you can do,” Renee Balenti challenged the board, questioning its role in the community. “I don’t have any faith in you guys.” 

After enduring a presentation about the board’s scope of work, members spoke out. “[We] feel the same as the public does,” Robert Nelson said. “We come here, listen to presentations and go home.” City Manager Paul Emery responded by reprising the role of the board as it had just been laid out, but that didn’t stop the grievances from airing. 

In asking the question of why the board exists, Nelson complained about how ineffectively it handles the issue of excessive use of force complaints—with quarterly meetings. Up until now, the process relayed by Nelson typically starts with a report issued by the Office of Independent Review’s Michael Gennaco, who serves as an external auditor of the police. Three months later, the police respond to the report; three months after that the board finally meets again to address it all. “By that time, it’s already been half a year,” Nelson said. 

The outspoken board member continued, saying that his colleagues have repeatedly asked to meet more often. Emery responded by making frumpy faces at the mere mention of the suggestion. “That’s not true, Mr. Nelson,” he said. While the meetings remain quarterly for now, the city manager promised to look into how deeply the board could independently review excessive use of force reports for itself away from Gennaco and, of course, during private briefings. 

“The public is looking for us to be the eyes of the community,” Nelson continued. He also brought up the issue of translation for public meetings and budgeting for the annual National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) conferences.  Few board members could attend the previous conference last year, conveniently held nearby in Riverside. 

Although recent police shootings didn’t get addressed at yesterday’s board meeting, police chief Raul Quezada did give a presentation about the Klan melee. “We were prepared,” he said, noting the department first became aware of the planned KKK rally on February 23. “We actually had plainclothes officers at Pearson Park earlier during the day as well as during the incident,” he continued. “Contrary to what what we may have heard in the media, officers in plainclothes did take action.” They helped make arrests after violence broke out, but didn’t prevent it, something critics contend could’ve been done with a visible, uniformed presence. 

Quezada glossed over the elephant in the room even when board member Michael Colicchio asked him what he might do should another such rally happen in the future. Discussion around the idea of requiring permits for all protests floated, with Quezada expressing support for it, but exploring such an ordinance would run up against freedom of assembly. 

Nelson ended by asking Quezada what he thought the role of the Public Safety Board should be. More than a year after coming into existence, it’s still an open question. 

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