Hours into a marathon meeting of Fullerton's city council, the critical issue of police oversight in the wake of the July 2011 Kelly Thomas killing finally came to a vote. The 4-1 vote in favor of hiring the Los Angeles-based Office of Independent Review (OIR) for auditing services came as no surprise, given the strong pitch made earlier in the meeting by Police Chief Dan Hughes.
The only alternative option to be considered aside from the $60,000 annual contract with OIR for a two-year trial period was a continued evaluation, not execution, of other oversight models, including a civilian review board and related costs.
From the onset of Chief Hughes presentation, it was clear what type of oversight was favored. “In February of 2013, the city council heard a citizens group that was called the Police Oversight Proposal Committee who presented an external model of civilian oversight of the police department,” Hughes said of POPC's push for a civilian review board.
“As your Police Chief…I just do not support this type of model for our community or our police department.”
He then went on to outline the independent audit model provided by OIR that included “percentage” reviews of completed internal investigations by the Fullerton police, public annual reports to the city council and “real time reviews” of critical incidents. Chief Hughes considered the proposed yearly presentations to the council by OIR as essentially his “citizen oversight.”
If the Office of Independent Review sounds familiar to Fullerton residents, it's because the Los Angeles-based firm headed by attorney Michael Gennaco has done business here before. Last summer, he presented a 53-page report into the killing of Thomas. “Officers found a way of transforming a casual encounter into an incident resulting in death,” was his finessed characterization of the bludgeoning while criticizing a “culture of complacency” in the Fullerton Police Department.
Among the recommendations Gennaco made to the city at that time was for an independent model of oversight. More than one year later, that conveniently came in the form of his very own firm.
Following Hughes' presentation, speakers lined up both in support and opposition of the chief's recommendation. Since the actual OIR contract itself was not included in the agenda packet for the meeting, Jane Rands, a founding member of the POPC, said she had many outstanding questions. “Will all complaints be reviewed? Why should the police have a say in what the independent oversight or auditor will review? Has the council reviewed the contract that's being proposed?” she asked.
Councilwoman Jan Flory was more than comfortable with Chief Hughes' recommendation. “I believe that Mr. Gennaco would be independent,” she said. Mayor Bruce Whitaker cast a more critical eye. “I think that this misses the mark at least in terms of a truly independent model of oversight,” he said of the OIR contract before casting the lone vote against it. “I would like to see more citizen insight into what's happening.”
“I'm not surprised, but absolutely disgusted,” POPC member Matthew Leslie tells the Weekly after the 4-1 vote. “It's obvious to me the council majority didn't seriously take into consideration what we proposed.” The publisher of the Fullerton Rag blog that has been critical of OIR said he still sees a vital role for his resident group in the aftermath of last night's meeting.
“We'll look into forming our own commission not affiliated with city and do whatever we can to monitor the situation including handling complaints,” he said. “We will still keep working for this. If it takes change of elected officials to do it, that's something we'll focus on as well.”
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @dpalabraz