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Public demands review of police procedures

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

The death of George Floyd continues to reverberate across the country, roiling the nation’s streets, including here in Claremont, and packing the most recent police commission meeting.

The image of a crowded council chamber is, of course, a relic of the pre-coronavirus era. However, more than 50 members of the public signed on for a six-hour-long Zoom meeting on July 9. On the agenda were a number of topics that are part of the discussion regarding policing in America, including use of force policies, citizen oversight, body cameras and the police budget.

The meeting began with a statement from Claremont’s Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen, which included a pointed defense of her department and the professionalism of her officers.

“Your Claremont police officers and staff remain dedicated to the community and continue to risk their lives for strangers. They care about others and prove it daily. In today’s climate your Claremont police officers are being verbally abused including being cussed at, called despicable names and prejudged as racist and evil because they wear a police uniform. From this, especially our younger officers, they are learning how fragile public trust can be and how important it can be to provide policing at a high level of professionalism. That is what we continue to strive to provide for our community,” Chief Vander Veen said.

Many speakers during public comment objected the police chief characterizing her officers as victims precisely when police tactics are under increased scrutiny and while so many Americans are demanding an end to police brutality.

Josue Barnes and Noah Winnick of Claremont Change called the chief’s statement tone deaf, for failing to acknowledge “the pain and harassment they [police] cause and inflict on people of color in our community.”

“Members of the BIPOC community who joined the meeting to share their stories of harassment by CPD were welcomed with that message. So once again, we see that law enforcement, including CPD’s ‘finest,’ belittle and downplay the experiences of those they are meant to protect and serve. Let’s start with something basic here. When your community is telling you that they are targets of consistent racially driven harassment by your officers, that you refuse to acknowledge, do not turn to playing the victim. If you do not want to be cussed at and called racist, then act like professionals; abide by the law, stop harassing people of color for existing in public spaces in Claremont, and most importantly take responsibility for the actions and conduct of your officers,” read a statement from Claremont Change.

Multiple callers during the meeting who identified themselves as Black described being detained and questioned by Claremont police officers for little more than being in a public space. One woman said that on two occasions the questioning continued even after she produced an ID showing that she lived in the neighborhood.

To address some of the public’s concerns, the commission created a use of force ad hoc committee and one for community engagement and outreach. It also instructed the existing police review ad hoc committee, which is charged with reviewing public complaints about the police, to adopt a new online citizen compliant form which would be more accessible.

Commissioners John Perez, Jon Strash, and Rolondo Talbott will form the use of force committee which will look at existing policies regarding reporting of use of force as well as the review process. This includes the possibility that the police commission may soon have a role in reviewing use of force by the Claremont police.

The use of force review process as it exists is conducted entirely within the department, which is in accordance with state law, according the Chief Vander Veen. Commissioner Caleb Mason asked if examining use of force by the police review as hoc committee (PRAH), which requires members to sign confidentiality agreements, may be in the scope of existing law because it would still be an internal investigation and therefore not violate any officers’ rights.

“I think what the commenters were asking for, and what we’re talking about, is could we have the existing PRAH structure expanded to include participation in the same way in the use of force reviews. And I think the answer to that is yes,” he said.

Chief Vander Veen explained that PRAH came into effect following the Irvin Landrum killing and that forming the committee required the cooperation of the Claremont Police Officers Association. Therefore, if the committee were to expand its scope to include use of force review, the commission would need buy-in from the association.

“They have to waive their rights for opening up of their personnel records for the review process. So, the police commission would have to work with the association to determine if they want to do that,” Chief Vander Veen said.

Chief Vander Veen agreed to be part of the process but also requested that any commissioner who was going to sit on such a committee be open to becoming educated about the “practicalities and the procedures that officers are involved in during a traffic stop, for example, or domestic violence situations.”

The members of Claremont Change told the COURIER last month that this particular issue is among the group’s priorities.

“In sports the athletes themselves don’t call fouls, the referee does—someone who can actually be objective. I don’t really care for officers judging other officers. I’m not sure how that can be truly objective when we know there is this culture of brotherhood within the police department,” Mr. Barnes said during public comment.

The police review ad hoc committee will also explore ways to replace the existing public complaint system with one that to be submitted online. The current process involves filling out a paper form and dropping it off at the police department in-person, which public commneters felt may intimidate some victims of police misconduct, particularly if the incident just occurred. The new system envisioned by the commission would be accessible from a computer, tablet or smart phone and could be completed within minutes of the incident. Commissioners on the PRAH committee include Mr. Mason, Frank DeLeo and Mr. Huang.

Finally, the committee will look at alternative wording for CPD’s guidelines on an officer’s duty to intervene in cases of excessive force to replace “when it clearly exceeds that which is objectively reasonable.” Critics, including members of Claremont Change, believe that it is nearly impossible to define what is “objectively reasonable” which makes it highly unlikely that an officer would ever be found to have neglected the duty to intervene.

“This burden of reporting and intervening is so high that no one will ever have to intervene and no one will ever have to be truly accountable for not intervening as long as there was some doubt,” Mr. Winnick said.

The commissioners expressed gratitude for the rare public engagement during the meeting, and in particular to those who spoke during public comment.

“We rarely see comments from the public so we welcome your input,” Mr. Huang said.

The community engagement and outreach committee—comprised of commissioners Mr. Talbott, Mr. DeLeo and Frank Bedoya—will seek in part to sustain this month’s public engagement for future meetings. This may include adopting a hybrid meeting format once the commission returns to the council chamber at city hall. Under that format, people could attend the meeting in-person or could continue to use the Zoom app. That committee would also be involved in individual community engagement by having discussions out in the public.

The commission and the police chief agreed that getting body worn cameras for the police was a one positive step they could make fairly easily. But some members of the community question the efficacy of the cameras and are very much opposed to further increasing the police budget.

“Getting the cameras is easy, keeping the records is very difficult.” Mr. DeLeo said. “And this is an important point ,and it is a point of contention that seems to be causing a lot of concern with our community. If we can show that either people are being racially profiled and abused verbally or other way, or not show that they are [being abused], this will solve some of the problems that keep arising. That is the one area where we could say to the citizenry that we are doing something. If $50,000 is going to do it, then I think we have to find it.”

“In terms of the body worn cameras, I would ask that the commission look into some of the literature and data on this as to whether those have been found to be effective in the national discussion. I believe the data on that is questionable at best. I understand there is an estimate to be around $50,000 to $70,000—please do not look for that in a budget increase but look in the current budget,” Noah Winnick said during public comment. He closed by saying that the police already receive 52 percent of the city’s general fund expenditures.

Mr. Talbott indicated he would support acquiring the cameras because they would provide another accountability tool, along with training and the audio recorders that the officers already carry.

“I’m looking at it from a holistic perspective as the body camera is one part of a much larger continuum of devices, techniques and methods when it comes to police interaction with the public. So, that includes all the training that our officers receive. That includes the recorder, that includes the video, which can paint a more holistic picture,” he said.

The commission discussed creating an ad hoc committee to study getting sworn officers out of the business of responding to the calls that would be a lot more appropriate for social workers or non sworn personnel to handle, such as addressing mental health issues and the homeless. However, Mr. Bedoya felt three ad hoc committees was enough for the moment, so this proposal will be brought up at the September police commission meeting.

Also on the agenda for September will be replacing the double pistol logo on the officers’ uniforms, which critics felt was too militaristic.

Finally, the police commission released a public statement condemning the killing of George Floyd which states: “we unequivocally and without hesitation affirm that Black lives matter.”

The statement also serves as a reminder of the commission’s role and its relationship to the Claremont Police Department.

“The Claremont Police Commission’s primary role is to promote police accountability. We exist to reflect community values; represent Claremont residents in the review of Police Department policies, procedures, and practices; and assist in setting Department goals. Additionally, the seven member Police Commission provides a public forum to address concerns, complaints, and recommendations regarding the Police Department,” the statement read.

The commissioners pledge ongoing review of police department policy, specifically surrounding accountability to ensure that officers treat all people with respect.

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