Torrance city leaders were besieged this week with demands for a civilian oversight commission, in the wake of reports that a group of police officers had exchanged racist and homophobic texts.
Mayor Pat Fury began the city council meeting on Tuesday, December 14 by saying that recent news concerning Torrance police officers does not reflect the city’s core values: transparency, integrity, professionalism and compassion for serving the community.
“These officers do not represent our police department as a whole or the city as a whole,” Fury said. “I, along with my colleagues on the city council, have full confidence in Chief Jeremiah Hart. I know he will hold his department accountable for upholding those standards. You should feel safe.”
But some 40 people, who either texted or called remotely for public comment during the meeting, appeared to be dismissive of the mayor’s sentiments.
“I am in awe of your assurances about your department’s transparency and the security of the city’s security,” said Sarah Bee, convened during a public comment session. “You have no excuse not to sack these officers and not to develop a civic oversight board for the police department. Racism, lies and corruption are out of control.”
the goal is transparency
The goal of a civilian oversight commission is, generally, to provide better transparency and accountability of police department policies, practices and procedures.
“One of the things we strive for is transparency, accountability, and an effort to serve as a bridge to the community,” said Brian Kay Williams, executive director of the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission. “When people lose faith in law enforcement, law enforcement doesn’t work.”
Not all civil inspection commissions are created equal. The LA County Panel was previously set up as an advisory board, and according to Williams, had little power to bring about any departmental changes. Williams said that once more power was granted, the commission had the authority to summon witnesses, obtain documents, and oversee police policy and procedures.
“We come from the point of view that light is the best disinfectant,” Williams said. “So that in an effort to shed more light on what is happening in law enforcement agencies, the power of summons is actually one of those tools.”
The amount of power any inspection commission has is at the discretion of the governing body – in Torrance’s case, the city council.
Charter amendment needed
Fury said the establishment of a civilian oversight commission in Torrance would require revising the city’s charter, which could only be done by voters. And Fury noted that the city budget is not healthy enough to cover the cost of a particular election.
A city council majority would also be required to make a charter amendment on the ballot, and Fury said such a consensus would be difficult to achieve.
“Everyone needs to be on the same page in attempting to make these things happen because in some cases, changes to local charters or changes to local ordinances are needed,” Williams said. “But really, it should be the will of all the people and the elected officials and the police department to go ahead with such an oversight body.”
Fury deferred Senate Bill 2, a new law written by State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, that establishes a system to investigate and certify police officers accused of serious misconduct. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on September 30. Among other things, the bill would create a Peace Officer Standards Accountability Division within the existing Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
The Accountability Division will be responsible for reviewing investigations conducted by law enforcement. It would also allow the department to investigate allegations of excessive force, sexual assault and display of favoritism and dishonesty, and could result in an officer being certified.
“Having one review board at our level and then another one at the state level would be very repetitive,” Fury said. “It’s not as easy as it sounds and they don’t fix anything.”
demand for past improvements
This is not the first time the city council has been asked to create an oversight committee for the Torrance Police Department.
Black Lives Matter activists responding to the police murder of Christopher D’Andre Michel in 2018, made similar demands to city council members in repeated appearances over several months.
In that case, according to a memo from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, officers contacted Mitchell in the Ralphs parking lot because he was in a car that had been reported stolen. The memo said that Mitchell initially put his hand on the steering wheel.
As officers approached the vehicle, they claimed to have seen Mitchell moving his hands to his lap, where he believed a firearm was hidden between his legs.
The report said the officers repeatedly asked Michelle to get out of her vehicle, but she did not comply with the orders. According to the memo, none of the officers alleged that Mitchell held the weapon, which was later identified as a “brake barrel air rifle”.
Unedited body cam footage released by Torrance police in response to a Public Records Act request by Mitchell’s family shows officers opened fire on Michelle within 15 seconds of making initial contact with her.
The officers involved in Mitchell’s death – Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon – were cleared of wrongdoing by the district attorney’s office in 2019. But now both officers, along with several others, are under investigation for their involvement in a racist text messaging scam.
According to the LA Times, which obtained and reviewed the district attorney’s records, one of Concannon’s texts implied that he may have lied during a shooting-related statement involving an officer. Concannon involves shooting only one officer—on record—the murder of Mitchell.
‘People at risk’
BLM-LA organizer Sheila Bates said she and others asked the city council to create a civil oversight commission during several appearances following Michelle’s murder.
“They didn’t respond to our demands at all,” Bates said. “Those are really reasonable demands, especially in light of this new information. We can’t pretend it’s just about text messages. Every time these officers are on the street people are at risk.”
Bates says he and his fellow BLM activists will continue to demand police reform.
“There is a need for real meaningful monitoring of the police department,” Bates said. “We have seen time and again that police officers endanger lives and have very clear prejudices. And we really need to start a discussion about what it means to re-imagine public safety.”
Torrance City Council has been postponed until the new year, and it is unclear whether it will consider setting up an oversight committee in 2022.