Political Notebook

For Fresno candidates, Dylan Noble is difficult political calculus

Fresno City Council District 6 candidate Garry Bredefeld
Fresno City Council District 6 candidate Garry Bredefeld Special to The Bee

The candidates vying for Fresno mayor and a vacant City Council seat each preached patience and voiced their general support for law enforcement Friday in the wake of national scrutiny over the Fresno police killing of Dylan Noble, an unarmed 19-year-old man who allegedly failed to obey officers’ commands during a traffic stop on June 25.

Police officers and their union make up a powerful political force in Fresno, and few candidates want to get on the wrong side of law enforcement. That makes public statements about police shootings a tricky political path for them to maneuver.

However, the politicians responded differently when asked about the police body camera footage and when it should be released. Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer has thus far withheld from the public, saying releasing it now could harm the investigation. But the release of cellphone footage showing Fresno officers apparently shooting Noble twice while he was lying on the ground has led many – especially Noble’s family – to call for the body camera footage to be released immediately.

Mayoral candidates

Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and Fresno City Councilman Lee Brand, Fresno’s mayoral candidates, each called the Noble shooting “a tragedy” and shared their sympathies for Noble’s family and friends. Both asked the public not to rush to judgment until an investigation is completed. Each praised the work of Chief Dyer and the rank-and-file officers in Fresno.

Perea, who was endorsed by the department’s union in April, was more muted in his responses to questions about body cam footage and the perception held by some that Fresno officers shoot suspects far too often. The Fresno Police Officers’ Association wields considerable political clout at City Hall, as it both endorses and contributes money to candidates in each election cycle.

“I am not going to second-guess what happened at the scene until the investigation is completed,” Perea said. “I have been on those scenes before. There are a lot of moving parts that people don’t see.”

Perea was a reserve officer with the Fresno Police Department for 15 years. He noted that, due to social media and 24-hour media cycles, investigations into police shootings must be fast-tracked.

Fresno Police Auditor Rick Rasmussen reported in October that investigations into Fresno police shootings take 350 days on average – a figure Rasmussen believes should be cut in half.

Dyer said in March that the department was working to establish a policy on the release of body camera footage after defense attorneys suing the department released the graphic video of Fresno police killing Freddy Centeno to the media. Dyer held a news conference in which he showed the raw body camera footage – despite an ongoing investigation by the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office. He said at the time that it was important people see the raw footage – not the slightly edited version shown by defense attorneys.

Police body cameras are a new convention in Fresno. The first wave of around 240 arrived in January, and another 160 came in April. Not every officer wears a camera, but most – even those not in uniform – have them.

Perea was hesitant to say that Fresno’s department needs a firm policy on releasing body camera videos.

“I know this is an emerging issue around the country, and some departments have gone to immediate release policies (for body camera footage),” he said. “I would rely quite heavily on the recommendations of the chief, and I reserve judgment until I hear both sides.”

Brand disagreed, saying he would be “an advocate of a policy on body cams” should he be elected mayor.

“We must respect the privacy of the family and the integrity of the investigation,” Brand said, “but there’s a reasonable time to release the footage. It is important for the city to set a policy that sets clear criteria and rules for releasing the footage.”

Brand noted that police make split-second decisions that are easy to criticize a month later, but he praised Dyer for asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the Noble shooting. Currently, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office is investigating, but Dyer asked the FBI to oversee and review it.

“We owe it to the family to investigate this thoroughly with independent oversight from the FBI,” he said. “(Fresno County District Attorney) Lisa (Smittcamp) is a great DA, but she knows Dyer. They all know each other.”

He continued: “Bringing in the FBI was a good move to truly clear the air and make it totally objective. It makes the investigation more meaningful and less likely to be criticized for bias.”

Brand also noted that police shootings are “a sensitive issue that also pose such a tremendous possible liability to the city of Fresno.” In 2011, the city paid $1.3 million to the family of Steven Vargas, who was slain by a Fresno sergeant earlier that year.

Brand said he was “truly concerned” that some people believe Fresno police shoot suspects far too often. He believes more community policing would help to defuse future situations in which an officer may be compelled to fire on someone.

“I am concerned about the perception, but I don’t believe that our police department is much more different than those in San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento and Los Angeles.”

However, a Fresno Bee investigation into police shooting numbers in 2012 found that Fresno officers did, in fact, shoot and kill suspects more often than Oakland or other cities of comparable size.

City Council candidates

Clinical psychologist Garry Bredefeld and entertainer Jeremy Pearce will compete in November for Brand’s vacant council seat in District 6, and both took stances concerning patience and support for police similar to the mayoral candidates. Each called the shooting a tragedy.

Bredefeld, who’s been endorsed by both the police union and Dyer, said Fresno police are “extremely professional” and “do an exceptional job” in the community. He doesn’t believe that the department uses excessive force, but he is concerned that some members of the public believe that.

“We can still get better,” he said. “We can all do a better job at times. We support a police auditor to know that police are further monitored aside from typical investigations.”

Bredefeld believes the Noble footage should be released, but he is concerned about damaging the investigation.

“I am not a law enforcement expert,” he said. “The investigators should decide the timeline.”

Pearce agreed, saying the footage should be released, but only when investigators believe it is safe to do so.

“I am not in a position to second-guess those officers that have to make those split-second decisions,” he said. “No one is above the law, but I am not going to rush to judgment.”

Pearce said that in similar cases, though not necessarily in Noble’s case, body camera footage shows suspects reaching into their waistbands and failing to comply with officers’ commands.

“When you do that, you put your life and the officers’ in jeopardy.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Garry Bredefeld is a psychiatrist.