Guest opinion: Wrong questions and wrong answers
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, police officers, or existing policies in the department.
Atherton is struggling with large budget deficits and the rising cost of the police department, which takes more than half the existing budget. As pension costs continue to grow, residents will need to struggle with the issue of keeping the department as an independent agency (surely involving increased taxes) versus outsourcing police services to either the county sheriff or larger neighboring cities.
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 trial about whether or not the police department had committed infractions that justified resident review processes.
Council Member Elizabeth Lewis noted the small size of the department, and that the number of citizen complaints had not been large enough to justify resident review. However, citizens reviewing police complaints is actually more applicable to small police agencies than large ones, as small agencies lack independent internal affairs units. The number of citizen complaints in Atherton must be measured in relation to the size of the police force itself, and the realization that any police organization will 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, so in my view actually requires a special argument against it.
Council Member Jim Dobbie said that he could not support a citizen review board until Chief Guerra had been on the job for one year. This comment is disharmonious with other citizen review practices in Atherton, such as the audit committee's relationship with the finance director.
There was no opportunity to consider 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, helping to justify the special police parcel tax that must grow if the department is to continue within Atherton, and community awareness.
Citizen adjudication of police conduct complaints should 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).
Some members of the police department may 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, is considered extraordinarily valuable. Could any of the functions I have outlined be considered a rebuke? Only in a pessimistic view of the process. Eastern philosophy emphasizes considering weaknesses as strengths, and vice versa, and more than anything, this opportunity was squandered on March 17.
Jonathan Buckheit is an Atherton resident.