Nearly five months after police officers shot and killed a mentally ill man in North Sacramento, prompting community demands for police reform, a proposal before the Sacramento City Council this week may increase oversight of the department.
On Tuesday, the City Council will vote on a package of reforms, including a recommendation for a revised community police review commission and a requirement to release video in officer-involved shootings within 30 days unless the City Council votes to withhold it under special circumstances.
The proposal also includes a resolution directing the Sacramento Police Department to put more emphasis on using nonlethal methods to subdue suspects.
Community members and some council members have been pushing for greater police accountability and transparency since the release of video footage by The Sacramento Bee of the shooting death of Joseph Mann by two officers, John Tennis and Randy Lozoya, in July. Mann was armed with a knife when the two officers attempted to hit him with their cruiser before pursuing him on foot and shooting him 14 times.
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Critics of the plan before the council said it doesn’t go far enough, and they will likely turn out at Tuesday’s meeting to voice concerns.
“I know it is better, but better and what it needs to be has some distance between it,” said Les Simmons, a local pastor who served as chair of the community police commission until resigning in protest in October to advocate for stronger civilian oversight powers.
“I think we can do more, right now in this moment,” Simmons said.
But those who crafted the reforms said that they provide the strongest oversight possible under current laws and police contracts.
Councilman Larry Carr, one of the authors of the package, said the proposal was a “huge” improvement, especially for the police commission.
“We have done the most that we can do under the current regulatory environment,” said Carr. “It gives the commission pretty much the ability to review indirectly and investigate indirectly … without compromising the police in any way.”
The proposal before the City Council would disband the existing community police commission – criticized as too weak – and replace it with a new 11-member commission charged with reviewing police policy and procedure, as well as looking at quarterly reports of data about misconduct complaints compiled by the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability, or OPSA.
This commission also would have the ability to monitor individual complaints filed with the accountability office.
Like the current commission, the new board would not have the power to make policy, discipline officers or investigate police personnel issues directly.
Each member of the City Council would appoint one member of the commission, and the mayor would appoint the remaining three members. Members would serve a four-year term, though some of the initial appointments would be for shorter terms in order to avoid replacing the entire board every four years.
The reform proposal also would move the Office of Public Safety Accountability out from reporting to the city manager, who also oversees the Police Department, and instead make the office report to the City Council beginning in June.
OPSA has been criticized for a lack of resources and power. The change in reporting structure is intended to give the office, and its civilian investigator, greater autonomy and the ability to conduct deeper investigations, said Carr. Its staffing would also be increased and it would have an annual budget of about $600,000.
Carr said that OPSA would have the ability to review police personnel records and internal affairs investigations, and report its findings to the commission in a “sanitized form” that does not include confidential details protected by law or labor agreements.
But like the commission, OPSA would still have only advisory and review ability over police, and would be unable to issue subpoenas or impose discipline, powers community members had pushed to include. It also would not routinely conduct its own independent investigations but rely on information gathered by the Police Department’s internal affairs division.
Simmons said that OPSA or the commission needs subpoena power and the ability to “fully investigate” misconduct independently.
“It has to have the power to be able to serve the interests in our community,” Simmons said.
The capacity to subpoena or discipline officers by either the Office of Public Safety Accountability or the commission would likely require a change to the city charter and bargaining with the police union, according to a memo from City Attorney James Sanchez that is included in the reform proposal.
The union for local officers, the Sacramento Police Officers Association, did not return a call for comment Friday.
Police reform measures have also been pursued in recent days by Interim City Manager Howard Chan, who took over day-to-day management of Sacramento after City Manager John Shirey’s retirement last week.
Chan last week hired a new assistant city manager, Arturo Sanchez, to help oversee the fire and police departments. While the reforms in front of the City Council could set a high-level vision for department conduct, it will be the city manager working with department leadership that has final say in policies and procedures for handling misconduct and police interactions with noncompliant and mentally ill suspects.
The proposed reforms largely draw from a framework put in place last year by Mayor Kevin Johnson and other council members following national unrest over policing tactics in places like Ferguson, Mo. The revision under consideration adds regular monitoring and City Council reports to that existing model – which the city manager also will oversee.
Chan said he hired Sanchez because he has a “wealth of experience in public safety at a high level,” and the skills to implement the reforms the council will likely pass.
“We have been experiencing lots of issues and concern over pubic safety, and as I build my office, I want to have subject-matter experts,” said Chan. “I just need someone who lives in that world.”
Sanchez is currently an assistant city manager in Long Beach, where he oversees the city’s civilian police commission. Prior to Long Beach, he worked for the city of Oakland, where he helped oversee the police review board and Police Department, including participating in the hiring of a chief in 2014.
Sacramento has taken initial steps to replace departing police Chief Sam Somers Jr., who will step down in December. The city held a series of four community forums in November to get input on the proposed reforms and solicit community input on a new chief, but the search for Somers’ replacement will likely be national. Department veteran Brian Louie was recently named interim chief.
Sanchez is expected to start in January.
Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg will also likely have an impact on the department in coming weeks after he takes office on Dec. 13. Steinberg said last week that he would like to see greater transparency in the city, including in lawsuits filed in response to police officer shootings.
Mann’s family filed a federal lawsuit charging police misconduct in his death. The city and the family are discussing a mediated resolution, but it is unclear what information about the case would be available to the public beyond the amount of a financial settlement if the case is resolved through mediation.
In November, a judge in the case granted a request from the city and lawyers for the family to keep confidential information shared between the parties as part of that mediation.
Steinberg said last week that he believed that “litigation was not enough” of a reason for the city to withhold information, and that he believed “the public certainly has a right to know whether a particular officer who has been accused of misconduct continues to serve in the role of police officer. … There ought to be a clear presumption of openness and the burden ought to be on the city attorney and police to demonstrate in a compelling way why anything is not public.”