Opinion Piece: Wrong Questions and Wrong Answers
Regarding Citizen Police Review in Atherton
by Jonathan Buckheit, Atherton Resident
The purpose of a Citizen Police Review Board is precisely what its name implies: allowing citizens of a community to review matters relating to its police department. It is not a sanction against the Police Chief, the Police Officers, or existing policies and practice in the police department.
In Atherton, we are currently struggling with financial budget deficits and the rising cost of the police department. The department takes more than half the existing budget, and, consistent with rising pension costs in all of California, its costs will continue to grow markedly over the next several years. Residents will need to struggle with the issue of keeping the department as an independent agency within Atherton versus outsourcing police services to either the county sheriff or larger neighboring cities, and the price we will need to pay for retaining the independent police force that will surely involve increased taxes. Closer resident involvement with the police department would help illuminate the tradeoffs, and might even make the difference in the decisions that are ultimately made.
At the March 17 council meeting, what was supposed to be the beginning of a process to deliberate citizen review rapidly devolved into a determination that review isn’t necessary in Atherton. The correct questions should have involved how citizen involvement and review could enhance police services, resident satisfaction and involvement, and thereby resident buy-in. Instead, rhetorical questions were presented that amounted to a quick jury trial about whether or not the police department and/or Police Chief Guerra had committed infractions that justified resident review processes. Notwithstanding the trial did not involve the presentation or consideration of any evidence, it missed the point of what citizen review is and should be all about.
Council Member Elizabeth Lewis noted the small size of the Atherton Police Department relative to Palo Alto (which incorporates a form of citizen review as well as outside audit in its police processes), and her perception that the number of citizen complaints had not been large enough to justify resident review. In terms of the citizen complaint review function of a citizen review board (and that is really only one of its functions), it is actually more applicable to small police agencies than large ones, as large police forces have independent internal affairs units that can perform objective reviews of officer conduct. The number of citizen complaints in Atherton must be measured in relation to the size of the police force itself, and the realization that – just as a perfect police department will, by nature, always have some complaints made – a highly imperfect police organization will, by nature, always have a minority of individuals who have had problems simply because almost all residents just experience routine contact with it.
Council Member Jerry Carlson indicated that he had not heard any compelling arguments made for the existence of citizen review. Despite also not being willing to listen to any, he missed the point that citizen review does not require a special argument to be made. It is the default for all aspects of our governmental functions.
Council Member Jim Dobbie announced that he could not support a citizen review board until Chief Guerra had been on the job for one year (and then, presumably only as a sanction for poor potential job performance). This comment is truly disharmonious with other citizen review practices in the Town of Atherton (e.g., the audit committee’s relationship with the finance director, and the planning committee’s relationship with the building department).
There was no opportunity to consider, or deliberate, what positive effects might come about through the implementation of citizen review. These include: discussion of police policies and practices between police leadership and residents (for example, taser use in Atherton, ticketing practices, and patrol), helping to justify the special police parcel tax (which must grow if the department is to continue within Atherton) based on the close resident involvement with the police department that could have been portrayed as a unique selling point, and community awareness. It should have included adjudication of police conduct complaints, but this too could have been viewed as the community having a much more direct link into expectations of police behavior instead of what is now quite indirect (election of city council members who appoint a city manager, who appoints a police chief).
Undoubtedly some members of the police department view the vote as a victory and endorsement. They too have associated the wrong questions with the existence of citizen review and come up with the wrong answers. The opportunity for an organization to get closer to its customers is a practice that, in the business world at least, is considered extraordinarily valuable. Could any of the functions I have outlined be considered a sanction? Perhaps, but only in a pessimistic view of the process. Then again, Eastern philosophy emphasizes considering weaknesses as strengths, and vice versa, and more than anything, this opportunity was squandered on Wednesday evening.