Fresno police officers will be getting more firepower and more horsepower under a pair of purchase contracts approved by the Fresno City Council for new patrol rifles and new vehicles.
But faced with pressure from the public, the City Council balked Thursday at two other police-related proposals, putting off the purchase of a controversial public data software program and a proposed policy on the public release of officers’ body camera video until a new mayor forms a police advisory board to review the proposals.
The council approved an urgency request from the police department to buy 270 Colt’s Manufacturing Company patrol rifles that will be issued to uniformed officers. The cost is expected to be $325,000 – about $1,200 per rifle.
The purchase is needed because of a growing number of “mass casualty” or “active shooter” cases, as well as ambush-style attacks on police officers across the country, Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer told the City Council. Cases such as those in San Bernardino, Texas, Ohio and other places prompted the department to review its own weapons needs.
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Dyer said the rifles are semiautomatic models similar to AR-15 assault rifles. The department already has some of the guns in service, but the new purchase is needed to make sure every officer has one.
Several residents made impassioned pleas to the council to reject Dyer’s request, arguing that the purchase represented an increased “militarization” of the police department.
“This isn’t Iraq. This isn’t Afghanistan,” said David Sasser. He said he believes police officers “can subdue the typical gangbanger with their pistol or the AR-15s they already have in their patrol vehicles.”
Tamika Thomas said she believes the city needs to focus more on building trust between the community and police rather than providing more powerful rifles. “I have a 10-year-old at home who is afraid of the police,” she said. “It should not be that way.”
“These are war weapons, not community weapons,” Thomas added.
Dyer was just as passionate in his assertion of the need for the rifles. “The cold reality in our nation today is this is a different society that we live in,” he said. He noted that a growing number of mass shootings have been carried out by assailants with assault rifles in recent years, in addition to ambush shootings of police officers in Palm Springs, Dallas and other communities.
“We’re coming across gang members every week who are equipped with assault rifles doing drive-by shootings. We want our officers to confront them with a handgun?” Dyer asked. “We live in perilous times, and officers deserve the equipment to protect themselves and our citizens.”
The council, however, put off consideration of a request by Dyer for a five-year contract with West Corporation for its Beware software, a program that scours public-records databases for address-based information that dispatchers in the department’s Real Time Crime Center can pass along to officers responding to 911 emergency calls.
Instead, Councilman Lee Brand – who will be sworn in as the city’s mayor next month – asked his colleagues to let him submit the proposal to a new police advisory board that he will appoint. The advisory board was one of the issues on which Brand campaigned this fall to serve as a liaison and increase trust levels between police and residents.
The Beware software stirred controversy earlier this year when police were using it on a trial basis because of its potential to comb through individuals’ public postings to social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The software also has the ability to assign color-coded threat levels based on data or posts that indicate officers could face a potential threat at a particular address.
In March, the City Council rejected a contract for the Beware software because of concerns over the software’s capabilities and uncertainty over the software algorithms and security of private, personal data; at that time, the council encouraged Dyer to do more community outreach to advocacy organizations and through radio interviews.
Many of the same concerns surfaced Thursday from community advocates, despite assurances by Dyer that the social-media and threat-coding capabilities were being removed from the version of the software that Fresno would be using.
Several residents, including Stacy Williams, called for the city to develop and adopt a strong surveillance policy before letting the police department use this or other database software. “Are there going to be secondary access points? Can officers access it from their cellphones or their patrol car or something less secure? ” Williams asked.
Williams also pointed to provisions of the proposed service agreement indicating that Beware can access data from criminal records that have been expunged. She worried whether someone with a wrongful conviction wiped from their record could be erroneously flagged by the software as a potential threat and that in turn, officers may respond to a flagged address with an elevated expectation of danger.
“They’re not saying their information is accurate,” Williams said. “The public is not safe because of inaccurate information.”
Dyer said he believed the proposal “truly covers most of the concerns that were raised” in March and added that the plan calls for the use of the software to be audited by supervisors in the RTCC and the department’s Office of Independent Review.
But as other speakers continued to voice skepticism, Brand said he believes the plan requires additional review and wants the advisory board he will appoint to take a closer look.
Body camera video
Brand’s advisory panel will also be examining a policy proposed by Councilman Oliver Baines, a former police officer, to set guidelines for how and when the police department releases video footage from police officers’ body cameras.
Baines offered the resolution to declare that “it is the policy of the city ... to be transparent and release police officer body-worn camera video and other video recordings related to criminal investigations and law enforcement incidents at the earliest legal and appropriate opportunity” when it would not interfere with criminal investigations or violate people’s privacy.
The resolution comes in the wake of controversy following the police shooting of 19-year-old Dylan Noble during a June 25 traffic stop in east-central Fresno. About two weeks after the shooting, video surfaced from a witness’ cellphone that showed the last two of the four shots the police fired at Noble in the parking lot of a gas station at Fowler and Shields avenues.
A week later, Dyer held a press conference at which he played the unedited video from the body cameras of the two police officers who shot Noble. Dyer said he wanted to release the video so the public could see a more complete picture of what officers faced as they confronted Noble and had to make decisions in mere seconds.
The Noble case is the subject of a pair of wrongful death lawsuits filed against the city by Noble’s parents.
Baines’ resolution requires that before any video can be made public, the district attorney or other involved law enforcement agencies will be consulted to determine if making the footage public would jeopardize any criminal investigations. “Video shall not be released to the extent other law enforcement agencies have objected on the basis that investigations are pending and may be prejudiced by release.”
Another provision allows the chief to have the video altered or edited based on the footage being graphic and sensitive to families and others. It states that for privacy and safety concerns, “the faces of officers, witnesses and the involved individuals may be blurred out or sound muted,” as long as the editing “shall preserve the substantive integrity of the video” and “fairly and accurately portrays the incident.”
One of the attorneys in the Noble case, Stuart Chandler, urged the council to send the policy back to the drawing board. “As written, it’s not a good idea, and it needs to be improved upon,” Chandler said.
His objections were based in part on a provision that video won’t be released “unless expressly authorized by the chief of police, this resolution, court order or other applicable law.” “My objection here is the city defaulting (that judgment) to the chief of police,” Chandler said.
Allowing video to be altered in any way was another red flag for Chandler. “It fails to say that if edits are made, the original must be maintained intact, both audio and video,” he said. “Critical evidence could be destroyed.”
After the critical remarks, Baines asked for the item to be pulled from council consideration and referred to Brand’s mayoral advisory board for review along with the Beware software issue.
New patrol vehicles
The council approved a $1.8 million contract with Swanson-Fahrney Ford in Selma to buy 60 new patrol vehicles to replace police cars that have reached the end of their useful life. The city will pay a little over $1.8 million for the Ford Police Interceptor SUVs.
“Replacement of these patrol units is critical for the police department to effectively and efficiently provide public safety services,” wrote Tim Olday, the city’s public safety fleet manager, in a staff recommendation to the City Council.
“In prior years, budget constraints have required the lifespan of patrol units to be extended from five years up to seven years and more,” Olday added. “Improvements in vehicle technology have helped to lengthen the lifespan; however, the department is still in need of replacing nearly one-third of its fleet, which is nine years or older. … These units have far surpassed the typical cost-effective life cycle of a normal patrol unit.”
Once the city takes delivery of the vehicles, they will be equipped with an array of needed gear, including computers, emergency equipment, decals, police radios, cages and prisoner transport seats.
The 2017 Ford Interceptor Utility, based on the Ford Explorer SUV, comes standard with all-wheel drive and a 3.7-liter V6 engine capable of churning out 304 horsepower with a top speed of 131 mph. It can achieve fuel mileage of 15 miles per gallon on city streets or 20 miles per gallon on highways.
Dyer said Fresno is opting for SUVs instead of sedans as replacement vehicles because they offer less cramped quarters as the department staffs its patrol units with two officers.