When Fresno voters approved the switch to the strong mayor form of government in the 1990s, they did so with the expectation that the city’s top leader would be a responsive, reassuring voice in times of crisis or civic unrest.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin largely has met this test throughout her two terms, most notably while guiding Fresno through a serious municipal financial challenge that if handled poorly could have resulted in bankruptcy.
But the mayor has been practically invisible since the Fresno police shooting death of Dylan Noble, an unarmed teenager whose confrontation with officers began with a traffic stop for squealing the wheels of his pickup truck the afternoon of June 25.
Community anger stoked by the Noble shooting – coupled with the police shooting deaths of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the ambush killings of five Dallas police officers by Micah Xavier Johnson – has Fresno on edge.
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Families wonder if they can trust police officers to do the right thing. Police officers (and their families) wonder if there is a crazed individual, armed to the teeth with guns and ammunition, taking aim at them. Every interaction between police and residents is accompanied by heightened tension and worry.
It’s the mayor’s job to address these concerns. Mayor Swearengin should have used the media to speak to every Fresnan, to appeal to our better selves and to make clear that City Hall is dedicated to ensuring the safety of all and working hard to resolve problems.
Instead, she defaulted to Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer. Since June 25, he has been speaking for the city. That isn’t Dyer’s job. It’s the mayor’s job, and we ask that she do it.
In an interview with Editorial Board on Tuesday, Swearengin said that her focus last week was helping the police department prepare for Saturday’s shooting protests with the goals of protecting the marchers’ civil rights and safety and the officers’ safety and keeping traffic and business disruptions to a minimum.
“Our police officers and those who were involved in the protests, all things considered, did an incredible job,” Swearengin said. “Now it’s time to look up and consider where we are as a community and a nation. We have to be extremely intentional to listen to each other, to hear the hearts of the people in the community who are deeply discouraged over the police shootings last week, as well as the officers who were killed in the line of duty.”
We echo the mayor’s compliments of how Fresno police did their jobs Saturday. A member of the Editorial Board witnessed officers calmly performing their assignments even when protesters stood face to face with them, yelling and cursing at them.
Our suggestion for Mayor Swearengin is that she schedule a forum in which she listens to community concerns about police shootings and racial bias.
At that same forum, she should offer an update on the department’s return to community-oriented policing, the hiring of additional officers and training received by officers to safely handle encounters with mentally ill citizens. She should also explain what training officers have received in using non-lethal firearms and in what situations non-lethal rounds or Tasers should be utilized.
Dyer normally would conduct such an event. But these are not normal times. Fresno needs to hear from its mayor.