Crime - Sacto 911

Sacramento police accountability falls on former cop who rose from poverty

Francine Tournour, Sacramento’s sole civilian police watchdog, stood tall and taciturn Tuesday night in a gray pantsuit in front of the City Council dais, a no-man’s-land between politics and the people.

Back to the audience but aware of its presence, she was there to lay out a package of controversial police reforms that some say go too far and others contend don’t go far enough. The proposal includes a revamped civilian police commission that neither activists nor the police union are likely to fully embrace, and a policy for releasing police video that will be vigorously debated before any vote.

As the bearer of contentious news, Tournour was in an awkward spot. But as head of the one-woman Office of Public Safety Accountability, she’s used to it.

Tournour, a 42-year-old former cop, currently is the only civilian in the city to have direct investigatory power for misconduct in both the police and fire departments.

But her law enforcement background means she gets pushback that she’s not impartial.

Probes of misconduct “cannot be led by someone who has worked for the people we are investigating,” said Richard Owen, a local activist who has been vocal for greater civilian oversight of police.

Despite the friction she causes, Tournour said her history – on both sides of the badge – makes police oversight personal for her.

She grew up poor in Oakland – in the kind of poverty that sometimes left her eating ketchup packets for dinner, she said. Sometimes, she’d wad up a piece of bread and shove it into her cheek, nibbling off bites to make it last.

“There were plenty of times that our electricity was turned off or there was no water,” she said.

Her mother, an emergency room nurse, worked the night shift at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, coming home for a few hours for Tournour to iron her uniform before heading out in the morning to work day shifts as a home health care nurse. Tournour said the family never took public assistance, but sometimes lived with 17 people in a 3-bedroom house. Along with her own eight children, Tournour’s single mother raised four of her young siblings when their mother died.

It was Tournour’s oldest brother whose brutal behavior set her on an unlikely path to becoming a police officer.

That brother started drinking in his early teens and soon became uncontrollable. When he came home drunk, he’d fight with another brother, with conflict sometimes escalating to hitting one another with chains or throwing bricks, she said.

“It wasn’t a typical sibling fight,” said Tournour. “They were ... violent.”

As the youngest child, it was Tournour’s job to gather electrical cords to restrain her brother until police could be called.

During one such incident when she was about 8, Tournour recalls standing behind her mother in their home’s entryway as Oakland police berated her mother for bad parenting.

“That was the moment I really decided that I wanted to get into law enforcement,” said Tournour. “I was just ... so offended, them not knowing my mother, to pass so much judgment, them not knowing her life and our life, how we were dealing with life. As little as I was, I just knew it wasn’t right and I remembered thinking they shouldn’t treat her like that, and if I ever have the opportunity, I am going to do better than them.”

Not long after, Tournour said, she began attending elementary school in Fremont, where her white father lived and where she could join activities like basketball after school.

She commuted the 23 miles between Fremont and Oakland by herself on BART, hitching a ride home with a teacher. When she went into fifth grade, her father moved to Long Beach and she accidentally showed up on a day when the school was closed. A janitor turned her in to the office. She was booted from the school for not living in the district and wound up back in Oakland.

By her early teens, she’d developed a penchant for skipping school, but the love of basketball stuck.

She became the first female ball girl for the Golden State Warriors, she said. Former Warriors player Chris Mullin took an interest in her and helped her join a traveling team called the East Bay Express.

Mullin said Tournour was “very sure of herself,” even as a teenager and a gifted ballplayer.

When he learned of her home life, “it kind of shocked me because it didn’t match up,” Mullin said. “If you saw her background, you wouldn’t think she’d be confident.”

She earned a college degree with the help of basketball scholarships first at San Jose State and later at two private schools in the Midwest, where she followed a boyfriend in a relationship that didn’t work out. After graduating, she returned to California and eventually was hired to work as a deputy sheriff in Contra Costa County.

She worked for three years in jails there. She liked the work because she developed relationships with the inmates she saw every day.

“Being that I grew up where I grew up … I know that any one bad circumstance or situation could land (someone) inside that jail as an inmate instead of an officer,” she said.

Tournour decided she wanted to be on patrol instead of in corrections and was sponsored by the city of Danville, she said. But she quickly ran into trouble with her first training officer. That officer told her to falsify reports, she said.

“Some of the things we were doing didn’t feel right,” she said. “How we were writing reports. … I’m like, ‘That’s not the way it happened.’ His response was, ‘Well, this makes it a stronger case, so this is how we are going to do it.’ 

Tournour said she took the issue to internal affairs.

“It kind of like blackballed me,” she said of the resulting investigation. “I still knew it was the right thing to do, so I’ve never regretted it.”

Tournour quit the department and moved to El Dorado County with her husband, a law enforcement officer she married in 1997. She was a stay-at-home mom for her two sons, now teenagers, for a year before joining the Sacramento Police Department in 2004.

She lasted a week on patrol. On her fourth day in Oak Park, Tournour and her partner pulled a car over. As her partner spoke to the driver, a paralyzed parolee, Tournour went to the trunk to get his wheelchair. As she was coming around the back of the car, she saw the suspect grab a gun and put it under his shirt.

She drew her weapon, but the suspect wouldn’t relinquish his gun.

“We’re like, ‘Drop the gun, drop the gun,’ ... and the dude is just not moving,” she said. They finally got the gun away and arrested him without violence, but the incident changed her mind about being a cop.

She said it wasn’t just the risk to herself, but being responsible for her partner that hit her hard.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. This is not for me,’ ” she said. “But I still felt like I wanted to do something in the community.”

Tournour transferred to police recruitment and in 2006, she made the move to the city, working in the Office of Public Safety Accountability.

In 2013, she married Ray Kerridge, the former city manager of Sacramento and later of Roseville. It was an “Oscar and Felix” relationship that lasted only three years, though Tournour said they remain “the best of friends.”

The growing unrest around policing tactics nationwide has brought Tournour’s solo oversight operation to the forefront of conversations about local police reforms. This week at a City Council meeting, a recommendation to increase her power and her staff was introduced.

If it passes Nov. 29, she will get three full-time employees, including another investigator.

“For as large a police force as we have and as large of a Fire Department we have, it makes absolutely no sense for one person to handle all these complainants,” said Danielle Williams of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, which has been active on the issue of police reforms.

Tournour said whether or not her office gains more authority, she’s passionate about maintaining her role as a police monitor, to make sure “people have a voice and feel like somebody is actually trying to help them and do better for them.”

In 2015, her office received 110 complaints against police officers. She handled 32 of those personally. She is currently working on a review of the July shooting of Joseph Mann.

Tournour said that despite the perception of bias her police background brings, it gives her insight into the job and an understanding of the nuances of police work. She said she is able to find middle ground between creating a force the community trusts and ensuring that police and fire personnel are supported in difficult jobs.

“A lot of times even when (a complaint) doesn’t violate policy or procedure, I still request that the department do some kind of training or handle it with the officer or their supervisors,” she said. “People still feel a certain way about happened to them and it’s important the officer know that. You are talking about people’s lives sometimes and where a lack of communication can cost someone their life. I think there has to be that bridge or that go-between to really understand.”

In coming weeks as the city holds public forums to discuss proposed police reforms, Tournour and her office likely will face close scrutiny. But she said that tension doesn’t bother her.

“My whole life,” she said. “I’ve become comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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