The city of Fresno has released a new report from the Office of Independent Review, an office created in 2009 to provide an additional layer of civilian oversight to the police force. The program’s creation, which took 8 years to come to fruition, was not only supported by Mayor Swearengin, but also the Fresno Chief of Police, and community organizations. The hope was to bolster community trust and support of their policing forces.
The report recommends 121 reforms or programmatic and procedural improvements – primarily based upon the investigations and audits of police actions between July and December of 2010. Those audits included officer-involved shootings, reports of misconduct, deaths in custody, and other internal affairs issues.
However, the nearly six month delay in the release of the report has led to claims that City Manager Mark Scott, who oversees the OIR, was attempting to cover for the Police Department.
Because of the nature of the report, and the role that Scott played in suggesting revisions to the language to enhance readability, it is understandable that some see an opportunity for impropriety.
It’s a charge that Scott acknowledges and addresses in his report, stating that his concern was both making sure the report was approachable for the lay audience, and verifying that supporting evidence was thorough. His suggestions, he contends, were simply on how the report was written and did not reflect any attempt to change the substantive claims of the report.
However, the very existence of the OIR and the access and independence it was endowed with at its creation, offers evidence to the contrary. The OIR, which reports to the City Manager’s office, was given the City Manager’s authority to access police files, appear at the scene of officer shootings, and the autonomy to determine which cases it should audit and why.
Of the 121 recommendations made, many are either fully implemented, under development, or being studied. In a memo released concurrently with the OIR report, Scott discusses not only what is being done with the recommendations, but also what his role and responsibility in the delay of the report.
“The Annual Report makes many important points,” wrote Scott in his City Manager’s Report to the Public. “The report is valuable in giving us a community agenda to discuss… The community is well served by the dialogue.”
That dialogue is sure to include at least all of the recommendations included in the report, and will likely not be limited to just what’s contained in the report.
For instance, the OIR report recommends that all officers ranked Sergeants or above be given extensive training on how to conduct an in-the-field investigation of complaints of misconduct. That’s because according to the Internal Affairs Bureau, Sergeants receive literally no training in internal affairs, yet they handled 41% of the complaints lodged in 2010.
Another recommendation is that the city review and revise its Early Alert System, a program that identifies police officers who need counseling before serious breaches of the public trust occur. Since 2008, that system has identified 38 officers who could be at risk, four cases made it to a review board, and none of the officers were ultimately referred to counseling. Because of the sensitivity of the each officer’s confidential file, long-term records are not kept. However, the OIR report recommends reviewing the program and making changes, including using peer review comparisons for determining appropriate actions.
Other recommendations made by the OIR weren’t simple policy adjustments; they could call for a substantial investment by an already cash-strapped city.
The OIR recommended outfitting the police force with both vehicle- and uniform-mounted video cameras. The presence of the cameras could provide evidence to verify both complaints lodged against the police as well as the defenses offered by the officers. But the cost, which Scott said could be in the millions, makes it a challenging proposal during deficit years. And it isn’t just the start-up costs that pose a challenge. Maintaining the camera systems is equally important. Faulty cameras can be used as part of a defense in court, which could help otherwise guilty criminals be freed.
The two reports, by City Manager Mark Scott and Independent Reviewer Eddie Aubrey, provide complimentary approaches to reforming and improving the city’s police force. More over, it is an important demonstration of a city going above-and-beyond what is required to build trust with the community.