April 08, 2005

National City Spotlight:

Police Review Board Needs to do the Public’s Work

By Ted Godshalk

In the last week people all over the world have contemplated and honored the lives of two of the most important figures of the past 150 years, Cesar Chávez and Pope John Paul II. These men dedicated their lives to the struggle for justice for every man, woman, and child. No higher calling is there. Chávez and the Pope accomplished so much during their lives and continue to guide us by their words and actions.

On the local scene, a human rights issue continues to raise concern. The workings of the Citizen’s Police Review Board (CPRC) in National City have been under scrutiny since the board’s inception. Stumbling out of the gate, this appointed group was given minimum supervision during the initial setup period and then it tripped headlong into the J.C. Penney Incident. Rarely do simple arrest actions become blown up into something that warrants a name. Incidents with names have a way of hanging around in our culture, some for a very long time. They easily roll off the tongue and fill the mind with a vision, a picture part real and perhaps part imagined. The Battle of Concord started the War for Independence in the American colonies with “the shot heard round the world.” 9/11 was the beginning of the War on Terror. Locally there was the Lemon Grove Incident, which occurred in 1931 when the Lemon Grove School Board blocked the schoolhouse door, not admitting the children of the Mexican families of the community. Events once named have lasting legacies.

Now here in National City we have our J.C. Penney Incident in which a police officer was involved to some degree in the deportation of several people who had been accused of shoplifting. In the days that followed the incident, it was obvious that the CPRC was ill equipped to handle this case. It virtually melted down instead of doing the public’s work. The chairman of the board resigned when he perceived the pullback of support from the Mayor and City Council. The board was directed to hold a forum to discuss the issue with the public but there was no dialogue at that meeting nor has there been any since. The investigation went on behind closed doors and lawsuits guarantee to keep it that way for some time. While some police procedures were modified in the wake of the incident, most people now realize that citizen review of police activities needs more serious thought. A plan has been hatched to create Operating Procedures for the CPRC.

From the beginning, and I mean before the Review Board was put on the ballot in 2002, activists were firm in their belief that any effective citizen’s board must have the power to compel testimony from police officers. They cite that the County of San Diego’s police review board has the power to subpoena witnesses. At the meetings held prior to the public’s overwhelming vote, the advisory committee heard the very straightforward opinion from police officers and their attorney that the subpoena power would be fought every step of the way. State law GC 3300, otherwise known as the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights, protects police officers from most public disclosure of internal investigations. Thus we have our current stalemate.

Consultant Herman Collins has been retained by the city to lead the discussion about the proper operating procedures for the CPRC. Collins is experienced with matters like these but it is very troubling that, at a recent neighborhood council meeting, Collins stated, “Subpoena power is one of those bugaboos.” Dictionary.com states that a bugaboo is “an object of excessive fear or anxiety. A recurring or persistent problem.” Naming the notion of responsive and responsible public review with a label like bugaboo is not helpful.

Cesar Chávez said, “Society is made up of groups, and as long as smaller groups do not have the same rights and the same protection as others […] it is not going to work.” The South Bay Forum, the American Friends Service Committee, and others are pushing for this equal protection for individuals who have grievances with the police and they are not having any part of this until the CPRC is given some real authority. This community doesn’t need a board that just goes through the motions. We must find a way to make the process transparent and accountable. The community has been asking for along time for better relations with the Police Department and this is an opportunity that should not be passed by. It is time for someone on the City Council to step up and place in the hands of the CPRC the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. Furthermore, the review board must be allowed to report to the City Council and the public when they have different and dissenting opinions on matters that have been investigated by the Internal Affairs department of the police department.

Pope John Paul II compelled people to work together. He said,“ Honest, patient negotiations which respect the rights and aspirations of all involved can lead to resolution of even highly complex situations.” Thoughtful and sincere discussion is needed to set the stage for the CPRC to do its job for the people of National City.

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com

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