New police oversight board gets mixed support, but will go forward in Fresno

Mayor Lee Brand’s plan to create a Citizens Public Safety Advisory Board received the blessing of the Fresno City Council on Thursday, but the support was not unanimous from the council dais, or from the community.

The council voted 5-2, with Councilmen Garry Bredefeld and Steve Brandau opposed, to adopt a resolution of support for Brand’s board.

The board, which is intended to fulfill one of Brand’s major campaign pledges from last year, would be a nine-member panel to conduct grand jury-like reviews of major incidents, such as officer-involved shootings. The board will also examine policies and issue quarterly reports to the council and the public.

Brand expects to bring a second stage of his plan – expanding the Office of Independent Review, or police auditor, from a part-time job to a full-time position – to the City Council within a few weeks.

On Thursday, community advocates including Faith in Fresno said that while they support the concept of an advisory board, concerns remain about the makeup of the panel and the amount of authority it will have under Brand’s plan. Faith in Fresno’s Andy Levine told The Bee that his organization is encouraged “that longstanding calls for an oversight body are finally being heard.”

Taymah Jahsi, also of Faith in Fresno, said she is “excited that the mayor actually kept his promise for a police advisory board.” But, she added, “it pains me that many of us who have worked tirelessly to research what community policing looks like in other cities for everybody to be safe” feel left out of the process.

Jahsi asked Brand and the council to wait 30 days to include more community members in developing the plan for the board.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno Police Officers Association president Damon Kurtz, and Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp spoke in support of Brand’s proposal.

But Bredefeld declared his staunch opposition, stating that he believes police officers already have enough oversight and scrutiny through the Fresno Police Department’s internal affairs unit, the Office of Independent Review, the District Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies.

“It’s a flawed policy.  This is about having the wrong focus,” Bredefeld said. “The focus doesn’t need to be on the police. The focus needs to be on the criminals.”

“Mayor Brand said from day one he was going to do this, I said from day one that I was going to oppose this,” Bredefeld added. “I’m interested in solving real problems, not engaging in political correctness or feel-good legislation..  I want to have the discussion how we’re going to make our city safe, not create another phony board to harass police.”

Brandau said he was voting against Brand’s idea because “it’s a solution in search of a problem.” Brandau discussed the efforts he’s seen in his northwest Fresno district by police to interact with residents in the 20 years he’s lived in the city. Forming an advisory board, he added, sends “a message.  that the Fresno Police Department has not done enough” to reach out the community, “and I’m not willing to say I believe that.”

The council’s vote was largely symbolic. Brand told The Bee last week that he doesn’t need council approval to establish the board, and City Attorney Douglas Sloan confirmed that on Thursday. But Brand’s plan to make the Office of Independent Review a full-time job and add an administrative assistant is a change that will require council backing.

Rebuilding public trust through the board’s review of officer shootings, excessive force or racial profiling “is a major step for a city that’s had a lot of problems over the years,” Brand told The Bee last week, noting some of the tensions in the community that followed the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old, Dylan Noble, during a traffic stop last summer.

The board will include nine voting members, all appointed by the mayor, who Brand pledged would reflect the demographic, economic and social diversity of Fresno. It will be have a number of duties, including:

▪ Reviewing critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings, excessive-force cases or racial profiling. The point is not to review the actions of particular officers but to recommend policies and practices to the Office of Independent Review.

▪ Advising the police auditor in developing a community-based policing program.

▪ Developing and monitoring performance standards to measure the effectiveness of community-based policing.

The board will meet in private, issuing quarterly reports on its recommendations to the Office of Independent Review and to the City Council. The closed-door nature of the board’s meetings were one concern of Faith in Fresno, as well as for Bredefeld.

“If the intent is to build trust and transparency, I have hard time seeing how private meetings do that,” Levine told the council. “We recommend that if there are monthly meetings, the board should at least have quarterly public meetings to report on the progress being made.”

Brand is steadfast on the need for the board’s meetings to be closed to the public. “If these are public meetings, based on what I’ve seen in eight years (as a councilman) there’s a lot of emotions around this issue; it’s really hard to get something done above all the anger and screaming,” he told The Bee.

But he said the plan also includes opportunities for changes based on additional community input. “It’s not a done deal,” he said. “The stuff I’ve written has always been on a one-year review. It’s an ongoing process.”

Brand said he didn’t receive the recommendations from Faith in Fresno and other advocates until Wednesday, a day before the meeting. “It’s just too late on this big of an issue to come back and make changes like this,” he said. “I appreciate and respect the work they’ve done, but a lot of people have their fingerprints on this. This was extensively collaborative.”

For Brand, “the next step is, first, get the OIR changes, and then second, empanel the members and start having meetings and see where it goes.” He added, however, that he’s willing to listen to the advocates’ ideas over the long-term.

That was encouraging for Jahsi and Levine. “This is new for the city; it hasn’t been done before,” Jahsi said after the vote. “I appreciate the efforts of law enforcement going forward and I appreciate the mayor being willing to be flexible and allow us in.”