Deborah Wong | Co-Chair, Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability
Op Ed Contributor
I reflect here on what Phoebe brought to police accountability work in Riverside. She worked for seventeen years as the Senior Office Specialist for the Community Police Review Commission (CPRC) for the City of Riverside, from its formation in 2001 until her retirement in 2018.
Bill Howe, the founding Chair of the CPRC, said, “She was devoted to her job. She knew more about what was going on the CPRC than anybody, because she was there from the beginning. She knew City Hall procedures and protocol inside out. I learned a lot from Phoebe.”
I knew Phoebe well in some ways but not well in many others. I didn’t know her outside the profoundly serious work she did for the CPRC. She simply described herself as a dedicated staff member for the City. She was that and much more. If you phoned the CPRC office in City Hall, she probably answered the phone. She was kind, responsive, and a problem-solver. She was an unfailingly professional and carefully neutral in a job that was often fraught.
The CPRC fields all complaints lodged against Riverside Police Department officers and — especially — is required to assess all officer-involved deaths (OIDs), to determine whether the officer’s actions were within RPD policy.
Working first with the CPRC’s full-time Executive Director and later with its part-time staff Manager when the City slowly withdrew resources and support from the commission, Phoebe was responsible for organizing all the necessary materials for the Commission members’ work. She assembled reports from the independent investigator who goes out after every OID to talk with witnesses. She chased down the OID casebook containing the RPD documentation of an OID and the District Attorney office’s assessment of it. She organized the CPRC’s website, which is both the public face of the commission and a major archive of its work over the years. Phoebe had a high stakes job behind the scenes. She wasn’t in charge, but she connected the dots.
Police accountability work is often high drama. People — often men of color — are killed by the police. Police officers make terrible decisions in seconds. Some people defend the police categorically, regarding any criticism as heresy. Some people march in the streets. Others organize.
The Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability, The Group, the Riverside Chapter of the NAACP, and All of Us or None have spent years trying to change the systems that pit police against community. Phoebe worked with all of us, from the police officers to community groups. She took ghastly coroner’s reports and violent audio transcripts of officers’ body recorders and put them into carefully organized files so they could be assessed by the commissioners… and by community members like us. She helped ensure transparency, even when the City administration wasn’t sure that was what they wanted.
Phoebe was tremendously matter of fact. She had the most even of even keels. She didn’t smile a lot, but she didn’t frown, either. When she was on the job, she was on the job, and she was essential. She had critical responsibilities and she took care of them with focus and dedication. As former CPRC chair Robin Jackson put it, “She was the glue that held us all together. As Commissioners came and went, she made sure we were all appropriately trained so any transitions went off smoothly.”
What I remember most vividly was how Phoebe interacted with community members. During the CPRC’s evening meetings, Phoebe was in high gear. She took detailed minutes, tallied votes, and provided materials as issues arose. The meetings were sometimes three or four hours long. She oversaw public comment by collecting speaking requests from community members. I spoke quite a few times over the years, and I became familiar with the oddly performative procedure for submitting such a request. It involves walking up and down across the City Council chambers where the CPRC holds its public meetings. You go to the very back of the room and get a Request to Speak form. You look up the agenda item you want to address and write it on the form along with your name, address, and city ward.
Meanwhile, the meeting is going on: speakers are presenting, and the commissioners are asking questions. Feeling quite self-conscious, you then have to walk all the way up to the front of the room, approach from stage left, carefully step up as close to the dais as possible without presuming to enter that space, and catch Phoebe’s eye. She was always paying attention despite everything else she was doing. She would immediately get up and come over to collect the form. She came to know many community members over the years and would sometimes ask whether you wanted to speak in a certain order, before or after other speakers. She exuded a quiet respect and consideration that meant a lot to many community members. She treated you as if you had a right to be there and a right to speak.
As former CPRC Chair Jane Adams put it, “Commissioners and Managers changed throughout the seventeen-year period she was there, but Phoebe consistently served them all well and with heart.” Phoebe was the opposite of high profile, but she was essential to the work of the Community Police Review Commission. Police accountability work is hard. It calls for persistence, a head for legalistic detail, and analytical skill. As far as I know, Phoebe didn’t choose her job out of any specific political commitments, but she was all in. She kept the boat afloat. She made sure the files were in order. She stayed neutral but made sure the work could proceed.”
The Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability remembers and thanks Phoebe for her years of work on the CPRC. We learned from her that police accountability work is lifted up by many, and that everyone is necessary. We remember her with gratitude.
Deborah Wong is the Co-Chair of the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability and a faculty member at UCR.