By Mary Shelton
Community members showed up at different venues to express their concerns about recent actions taken against Riverside's Community Police Review Commission that preceded the sudden resignation of its executive director, Pedro Payne last month.
First, they appeared at a CPRC meeting on Jan. 24 to protest recent structural changes of the CPRC implemented by City Manager Brad Hudson and Asst. City Manager Tom DeSantis. To city residents and commissioners alike, it appeared that more activity surrounding the CPRC had occurred during the past holiday season when public meetings were not held than at any other time in recent years.
On everyone's mind and most of the speakers' lips was the departure of Payne, in the wake of announced changes to among other things, how the CPRC would investigate officer-involved deaths, which it is mandated to do by the city's charter.
Former commissioner and retired police chief, Bill Howe spoke about a city employee he had gotten to know very well while working with him.
Howe called Payne, an intelligent, hard-working individual who loved his job. When Payne first was assigned part-time to the position of executive director, Howe was hired by the city to train him. He said that Payne's performance soon alleviated any feeling he had that a law enforcement background was required to do the job well. News of Payne's departure saddened him, as it did many people.
"His resignation shocked me," Howe said, "I do not believe he resigned of his own free will."
Payne had not been allowed to attend community meetings during his final months with the CPRC including on his own personal time after DeSantis banned him from doing outreach although it was included in his job description. Howe said that he believed this was a violation of Payne's civil rights. He added that what the city staff had done was detrimental not only to the CPRC, but also to the people of Riverside.
Howe also voiced his concerns over news that the contract with the CPRC's investigative firm had been terminated, adding that the commission had retained the San Diego-based Baker Street Group to avoid any conflict of interest situations that could arise from doing business with a more local firm. He believed that the decision to not allow the investigator to begin his probe on behalf of the CPRC until six months or longer after an officer-involved death would be detrimental to that process.
"The city is going to do their best to get rid of the commission one way or another," Howe said.
The Reverend Paul Munford of the New Joy Baptist Church echoed Howe's words.
"The community will have a voice," Munford said, "Someone is trying to stir the pot and see how far you can go without accountability."
Munford reminded the commission that it had been created as an "oversight arm" to make the police department accountable to the community after the 1998 shooting of Tyisha Miller led to upheaval in the city.
"The commission was born out of that situation," Munford said.
Vickie Jackson said that Payne was the latest man or women of color to be either fired, demoted or have submitted a resignation while working in a management position at City Hall.
"Dr. Payne had the experience. He had the education. He had the dedication," Jackson said, adding that she was very disgusted, "I'm a minority who worked hard for the city."
Proposed changes to the procedure involving how the CPRC investigates officer-involved deaths an continue to raise concerns among community members and commissioners alike. Others raised concerns about not being able to place items on the agenda for discussion without approval by the city manager's office.
Commissioner Jim Ward experienced this when he had tried to put an item on the Jan. 24 meeting on that agenda to discuss the recent chain of events leading to Payne's resignation. Interim executive director, Mario Lara, vetoed that upon instruction by DeSantis and City Attorney Gregory Priamos. Instead, an item was placed on the agenda involving a powerpoint position by DeSantis. Ward found out what had happened not long before the meeting started.
Commissioner Brian Pearcy said that he was also disturbed when the city put restrictions on Payne's outreach, as well as the proposed delays on the CPRC's investigations of officer-involved deaths.
"We should make sure our investigator is there when the tape is down," Pearcy said.
On Jan. 29, both the Eastside Think Tank and the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability held a public forum to address some of the issues surrounding the commission including its investigation of officer-involved deaths. Panelists included Councilman Andrew Melendrez, CPRC commissioner Les Davidson, Riverside County District Attorney's office representative Sara Danville and Riverside Police Department Chief Leach.
The panelists fielded questions that they answered to varying degrees.
Davidson said that the commission could only be as powerful as the community wanted it to be.
"You need to speak up. You need to get together," Davidson said, "You need to do something."
Leach said that his relationship with the CPRC had been up and down. During Howe's tenure as chair of the CPRC, communication had been good and seven policy recommendations were approved by the department. After that, "communications broke down," he said.
Leach told the audience that he would be giving the briefings to the CPRC involving officer-involved deaths in the future and would be taking questions by commissioners but would not be answering them.
"We are very limited in what we can say," Leach said.
When one question addressed the higher number of officer-involved deaths involving the police department that disproportionately impacted people of color, Leach's answer was brief.
"That's a society question," Leach said. "not a police question."
Danville followed up Leach's statement with a request for statistics showing the allegation that more people of color were being shot by Riverside's police officers.
Since October 2005, there have been five officer-involved deaths including three African-Americans in a city where this racial group comprises only 7 percent of its population. One of the woman sitting in the audience who was interested in an answer to that question was the sister of Joseph Darnell Hill, who was shot and killed by Officer Jeffrey Adcox last October.
Another former commissioner, Gloria Huerta spoke at the city council meeting on Jan. 23, voicing her continued support of the commission that she had served four years on.
"City politics have once again worked to undermine the will of the people and have been successful in driving Dr. Payne from city government and the important work that he was tasked with completing," Huerta said, "It appears that you are not done with your machinations and that you want to continue to try to gut the CPRC."