Op-Ed | Want to Improve Police Relations? Start with the Public Safety Commission

'The road to addressing South Pasadena’s own institutional racism needs to be long term'

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Protestors gather by City Hall in South Pasadena in June 2020

By South Pasadena Youth for Police Reform 

After some of the largest protests South Pasadena has ever seen after the killing of George Floyd, the question remains: what have we done?

Despite signals from leaders of support and an overall community consensus that systemic racism is a topic we need to deal with, meaningful policy change has still yet to come to the fore. There is, however, one decision our city policy makers can easily undertake: revamping the Public Safety Commission.

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It’s well established that an important first step in pursuing community-based policing is establishing civilian oversight bodies. The most robust version of this kind of oversight body would be able to independently investigate instances of officer misconduct and recommend findings to the police chief or city manager. In South Pasadena, we are a long way from this kind of oversight over our own police department. In fact, we hardly know anything about its internal operations. One of the most important ways we learn about it is through the Public Safety Commission: seven citizen appointees who regularly meet with the fire and police departments.

When our own Public Safety Commission requested information regarding the officer involved shooting of Vanessa Marquez, the topic was stopped before it reached a public meeting. City staff said that such matters aren’t within the scope of the Public Safety Commission’s concerns. When the city decided to hold a press conference on it, commissioners were notified hours before, signaling an obvious intent to prevent commissioners from engaging in the discussions that weigh most heavily on the state of public safety in the city. City staff said that such matters aren’t within the scope of the Public Safety Commission’s concerns. 

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Friends, family, and supporters of justice for the late Vanessa Marquez convene at South Pasadena City Hall on Wednesday, June 24, 2020 to announce a wrongful death claim.

For most of its history, the public safety commission has served as a conduit of feel-good catching up between commissioners and the fire and police departments. A typical meeting might include updates on “No Shave November” fundraisers or neighborhood watch programs. This is because the role of the commission and the scope of its work is determined by its charter — a guiding document voted on and established by the city council that serves as the seven-person advisory body’s constitution. 

The commission’s charter establishes an effective means for the fire and police department to have outreach to the public. When it comes to critical questions from the public for our city departments, the current charter comes up short. 

One of the biggest barriers to creating more oversight in South Pasadena is a provision in the charter that makes it so everything the commission does must first filter through the city manager before coming before council at a city council meeting. Under city code 2.43(i), “All commissioner communications and requests of city staff must be made via the city manager’s office including responses back through the city manager’s office.” No other commission in South Pasadena operates with this provision, which can act as a filter for PSC recommendations and create needless delays, as well as add on to staff load that is used to justify the provision. There is no reason why it should remain. 

Already, the PSC has begun the process of reimagining it’s role. Seeking to respond to the community concerns, the Public Safety Commission voted to draft a new charter that would enable the commission to explore SPPD policies. On July 13th, a draft version of a new charter was approved by the commission, and was sent to city staff to review, after which it will finally make it to city council without a clear timeline. 

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Stephanie DeWolfe, South Pasadena’s City Manager, during an emergency proclamation meeting on Wednesday, March 18, forewarning the “stay-at-home” mandates

As if to underline the need for charter reform, city staff have not finished reviewing the draft charter in time for the upcoming August 10th meeting. Instead, they will be talking about a “National Night Out open house,” continuing a culture of neighborly relations but neglect of meaningful conversation. 

The draft approved by the PSC is a significant improvement upon the current charter. The draft charter imagines a PSC less concerned with traffic and pedestrian safety and planning (which should be the role of the Mobility and Transportation Infrastructure Commission), and engaging in conversations about transparency, policies, hiring practices, and other critical areas necessary to building community trust. 

Spurred by a request from city council, the PSC is engaging in a review of SPPD use of force policies with a subcommission. As part of a framework of areas for reform, the PSC has outlined hiring and training practices, a review of complaints, misconduct and disciplinary records, policies relating to the use of spit hoods, and other critical topics in need of scrutiny within our police department. That effort undertaken by the PSC at the city council’s discretion represents meaningful steps toward introducing transparency into SPPD practices.

Under normal circumstances however, the reform framework wouldn’t fall under the PSC’s charter, as Chair Jeremy Ding mentioned at the July 13 meeting. In order to make sustaining transparency a long term goal, the charter must be revised. 

Part of the impetus for this is that, without an effective PSC, SPPD will continue to operate as a black box for civilians with questions with their own police department. Instead, information will have to come out piecemeal through the incredibly expensive process of public records requests, further exacerbating strained community relations. South Pasadena Youth for Police Reform has so far sent a records request on May 2 seeking instances of civilian complaints against officers and is still awaiting these records. We are also still waiting to hear back for a records request sent on July 15 for arrest demographic data.

In lieu of meaningful data on department operations, assessments of department internal culture are arrived at with what we do know. An appeals court ruled that SPPD discriminated against former officer Timothy “Pat” Green, who has voiced concern about a culture lacking oversight within the department. More recently, the concerning mishandling of a racially-motivated hate crime against protestors at the intersection of Mission and Fair Oaks raised questions about how much as a community we can back up the sentiment “Black lives matter” when actual instances are treated with malaise. 

SCREENCAP from video taken by Victoria Patterson | The assaulter, Joe Luis Richreek, spits at the camerawoman. Richcreek has been convicted of over 40 crimes in the past years

In response to the national reckoning with institutionalized racism, cities such as Pasadena are exploring whether to go beyond a Public Safety Commission and establish a dedicated police oversight commission. An immediate and effective move to increase transparency in South Pasadena would be to start with adopting the amended charter for the PSC that begins to break down the black box of SPPD. Although a robust oversight of civilian bodies with the ability to investigate misconduct and enact consequences would be ideal, an improved PSC is certainly a starting point. For an example, we can look to Claremont, whose Police Commission is charged with reviewing “police department policies, procedures, and practices, and assists in setting goals for the department that reflect community values.”

The road to addressing South Pasadena’s own institutional racism needs to be long term. In fact, when we put up lawn signs saying Black lives matter we need to be able to also seek how we can value Black lives with our actions. On Wednesday, our city council voted for another resolution to champion civil rights. When will we see policy that actually lives out the promise of the posturing? Changing the charter of the PSC to better address this need is a small but necessary first step toward this end. 

For our city elected officials, we want to make it explicitly clear that we are asking you to adopt the draft charter that the PSC approved at their July 13 meeting without any changes. Since there is no timeline for city staff to relay the recommendation for council, we urge the City Manager to not delay the item’s delivery to council.







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