Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer promised to have an outside agency train his officers in implicit bias, publish a monthly report on high school officer citations and invite the federal Department of Justice to assess his agency’s efforts toward community policing.
Those were a few of the pledges that came out of a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Westside Church of God in southwest Fresno, at which 250 people listened as faith leaders spoke about race issues and law enforcement officials responded to requests for change.
Faith in Community led the town hall as part of a PICO campaign, as the national nonprofit’s Fresno affiliate, to reduce the number of incarcerated people and what it says are racially biased government policies. The goal was threefold: lift up community-driven initiatives to reduce gun violence, lower incarceration rates and promote successful re-entry; generate recommendations for action; and create opportunities for racial dialogue.
The group made four requests of Dyer:
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▪ Invite the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, to assess Fresno’s implementation of the recommendations set by the president’s 21st Century Policing Report.
▪ Expand the department’s current implicit bias training, which uses its own officers, by asking an outside agency to train them.
▪ Produce a monthly report on community resource officers stationed at each high school, including the number of citations, the reasons they were given and the ethnicity of students involved. National data from the U.S. Department of Education shows students of color face harsher discipline than white students.
▪ Ask the mayor and City Council to strengthen the Office of Independent Review, which reviews the police department, by requiring auditors to live locally, institute a citizen panel to oversee the office, equip the office with subpoena powers and require internal affairs reports on officer-involved shootings to be finished within six months.
Dyer agreed outright to the first three requests. He said the department has already implemented many of the 21st Century Policing recommendations, including implicit bias, de-escalation and mental health training. Everyone has a bias, he said, and officers need to self-reflect on theirs.
“We want them to understand how that bias may impact their ability to relate to people and in turn their enforcement action,” he said.
Dyer said it is better not to have auditors live locally so they can be completely objective. He committed to getting reports finished within nine months but said six months is difficult because some things are out of the department’s control. He said he is open to discussing the other two pieces with community leaders, the city manager and mayor.
The Rev. Booker T. Lewis II of Rising Star Baptist Church in Fresno asked U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner to advocate for six federal policy recommendations, including preventing urban gun violence, sentencing reform and changing re-entry policies for released prisoners.
Wagner supported some of the recommendations, including strengthening police-community relationships through the COPS office, but said others fall out of the DOJ’s purview. He said reducing urban gun violence is a high priority of the DOJ and he would continue to advocate for it.
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp agreed to push for more funding for the Fresno County Probation Department to keep low-risk offenders out of jail before trial. As The New York Times recently chronicled, thousands of innocent people are jailed around the country every year because they can’t afford to post bail.
Faith leaders cited Fresno Bee stories about police, including a July report that Fresno police have shot 30 people since 2012, killing 17 and resulting in seven excessive-force lawsuits. They mentioned the shooting death of Joseph Ma, an 18-year-old Mexican-American who was shot in the back early last year by a Fresno officer.
Pastor Chris Breedlove of Community United Church of Christ said his son, who is black, is growing up in a city where most officer-involved shootings happen to people of color south of Shaw Avenue.
“One of our neighbors or loved ones could very well be the next Michael Brown or Sandra Bland,” he said. “Just because Fresno isn’t trending on Twitter doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering from that same nightmare.”
The Rev. D.J. Criner of Saint Rest Baptist Church described an instance in 2011 when a police officer driving by his west-central Fresno home stopped and asked, “What are you doing? Why are you in this neighborhood?” His was the only black family in the neighborhood.
Criner experienced the anger and embarrassment that comes with being profiled as a black man. Now as a lead pastor, people ask him to speak on their behalf.
“Praise God I have the ability to talk to my (police) chief,” he said. “Praise God my chief has the ability to talk back to me. But there are thousands upon thousands of African-American and brown Fresnans who are unable to have that same kind of communication, who are living in constant fear every time a police car comes behind them, every time they are stopped or every time they see flashing lights.”