Will Anaheim Purge its Public Safety Board Five Years After Summer Riots?

The Anaheim Community Coalition and Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Anaheim held a town hall on oversight of the city’s police this weekend across the street from PD headquarters. It happened as the five-year anniversary of the Anaheim Riot nears and the future of the Public Safety Board born out of it remains uncertain. Duane Roberts, who filed a complaint against Chief Raul Quezada over his misleading statements following last year’s Pearson Park KKK rally-turned-melee, moderated the two-hour long panel discussion at the church.

Panelist Renee Balenti, whose husband Boaz sued Anaheim years back after officer Scott McManus crashed into him while driving his truck, focused the discussion on Anaheim’s embattled pilot program for police oversight. “The safety board that we have is tucked away across the street from City Hall,” she said. Quarterly meetings take place at the Gordon Hoyt Conference Center on the second room of the Anaheim West Tower—anybody know offhand where that is? And if Anaheimers missed meetings, audio and video archives don’t exist to review them. “We need this Public Safety Board to have teeth, period,” Balenti ended.

The pilot board formed in 2014, but didn’t host its first meeting until two years ago in 2015. The Anaheim Community Coalition pressed for police oversight with subpoena power in 2013 and held a town hall panel discussion at the Unitarian Universalist church the following year. Co-chaired by Donna Acevedo and Theresa Smith, two mothers who lost their sons to police shootings, they submitted a detailed list of recommendations to council that went ignored.

This time around, attorney David Haas took his turn on the panel to offer comparison and criticism of Anaheim’s police oversight model. But first, he started with words of encouragement for how far the city has come since contentious relations between Latino activists and the police in 2000 under Chief Roger Baker. “I don’t think the presence of Mike Gennaco’s OIR [Office of Independent Review] is a bad thing,” he said, suggesting adding a city-contracted auditor marked a “major change” for Anaheim.

The attorney, who has sued Anaheim three times in federal court, drew from his own experience as a member of the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board in San Diego during the mid-90’s. “We were in constant struggle to expand the powers of the board,” Haas said. He remarked that subpoena powers for civilian review boards are definitely feasible through the deputy city attorney’s authorities and lauded Berkeley’s model. “The reality is that it could be done,” he said. Haas stressed the possibilities of a police oversight model referring cases to the Orange County Grand Jury while noting the vital importance of ensuring secure funding for its activities and inscribing them into the city’s charter.

“Five or ten years from now, [the Public Safety Board] shouldn’t be a historical artifact,” he added.

Jennifer Rojas, Community Engagement and Policy Advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, revealed jarring statistics the organization has compiled on the Anaheim Police Department. According to FBI data, Anaheim is the ninth deadliest police force among the nation’s sixty largest cities. Rojas also noted that in the decade between 2006-2016, African-Americans accounted for just 2.8 percent of the city’s population, but comprised 12 percent those killed in police shootings. In the same time frame, Latinos made up 64 percent, a statistic higher than their majority population status. And when riots erupted five years ago, deadly police encounters equaled a quarter of all homicides in the city.

“Right now, the Public Safety Board does not have teeth, nor does it have adequate goals to accomplish effective civilian oversight in the city,” Rojas said. The ACLU is asking for any such board in the city to incorporate 8 core elements, including subpoena power.

The ACLU also sent a letter to Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and the rest of the council last month outlining their key findings and reiterating their recommendations. But the civil liberties group isn’t the only one trying to gain the attention of council members.

Robert Nelson, who’s been critical of the board he sits on as Vice Chair, wrote the council in a Mar. 21 email relaying his experiences. “The Public Safety Board we have today is limited in its authority and scope,” he wrote. “While I have enjoyed my time on the board, it has been frustrating at times for myself and fellow board members. The frustrations stem from the limitations on the board from its inception.” Nelson outlined three areas of improvement including granting the ability to review internal and external complaints, allocating an official operating budget and becoming independent of the city manager’s office.

The board’s frustrations came to a head during the December 15 meeting when they voted 5-1 to have Gennaco review Human Resources’ dismissal of Roberts’ complaint against Chief Quezada as unfounded allegations. The move marked a rare occasion when the board determined the agenda and not City Manager Paul Emery. Gennaco is still in the process of reviewing the matter, but was limited in his statements in the February meeting that followed—the final gathering of the pilot program.

“Right now, the February 23 meeting is scheduled to be our last meeting,” Lylyana Bogdanovich, the City Manager’s Senior Administrative Analyst, wrote to board member Michael Vogelvang in a Feb. 17 email. “As the City recently moved to districts, it is likely that the Board composition may change to reflect the newly established districts. We understand retaining some Board Members (the number is unknown) assists with continuity, given the amount of time it takes to bring members up to speed.” Bogdanovich added that final discretion laid with council.

Back in February, city council voted to overhaul board and commission appointments in the wake of single-member district reform. Later that month, it also held a workshop session to consider the future of the Public Safety Board with Joseph Brann, a paid consultant, presenting his findings during the afternoon council meeting.

“Although I’m concerned the current board might be sacked and the OIR audit of my complaint against the police chief will be buried by the city manager, that would be a foolish move,” Roberts told the Weekly after the town hall. “This is a chief who is very meticulous in ensuring that he gets reimbursed for every penny he spends on meals while on city business but can’t get his facts straight when a critical incident occurs like at Pearson Park last year. Attempts to obstruct any further investigation into this emerging scandal could pave the way for a criminal probe by an outside entity.” The former council candidate has met with councilmen Jose Moreno, Steve Faessal and James Vanderbilt alongside other community members. Roberts plans more meetings in the future.

Council members Moreno and Faessal sat quietly in the audience at Saturday’s town hall. When the event neared its end, people prodded them to make public statements about the issue at hand. “I do support an independent oversight body of our police department,” Moreno said at the end of the panel. “The council will move when the people push them to move.” Faessel echoed his colleague’s comments from the audience, though both remained vague about what type of oversight they favored.

Neither uttered the two magic words of the afternoon: subpoena power.

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