Saturday, June 3, 2023

Torrance officials and police critics disagree over new advisory commission’s ability to bring about change

On Friday, January 14, new details surfaced as to why Torrance chose to set up a commission to advise his police chief rather than set up an independent oversight panel, including the ease of setting up the former over the latter, although law enforcement critics the agency asked whether such a group to produce any real change in the department.

On Thursday, Torrance officials announced the formation of a new General Police Advisory Commission, which city officials say is intended to bridge the gap between the community and the police department.

Indeed, the creation of the group, which has been on Chief Jeremy Hart’s agenda since he took office in July, said department spokesman Sgt. Mark Ponegalek – Appears amid ongoing tensions between some members of the community and the police department. The city council has faced calls from several concerned residents to set up a civilian oversight commission after evidence surfaced late last year that officers were distributing racist and homophobic texts, joking about slave lynchings, LGBTQ beatings and police shootings of blacks.

Torrance officials and police critics disagree over new advisory commission's ability to bring about change
Torrance city council holds a meeting where members of black lives matters protest the murder of christopher deandre mitchell on monday, may 7, 2019. (photo by axel kester, photographer)

The revelation resulted in Torrance placing 13 officers on administrative leave and state attorney general Bob Bonta launching an independent investigation into the text messaging scandal.

“Obviously one of the goals is transparency, accountability and having a police department that is able to respond to the needs of society,” Ponegalek said. “So, a direct connection to the community – which we don’t have – will help us with that.”

A press release issued on Thursday said that the General Police Advisory Commission will include 10 to 25 volunteers from different parts of the city.

Meetings will be held four times a year, Ponegalek said, although he expects Hart to convene more frequently early in the process as the commission is established.

Anyone can apply to join the advisory committee, but there are requirements. For example, all candidates must be prepared to complete the Partners in Police program at some point in the future in order to be considered.

Torrens describes the program as an opportunity for individuals to “get into the boots of an officer” and take part in practical training related to their duties.

“This program is a great opportunity to really show these people what the Police Department is capable of, what we do and how we function,” Ponegalek said. “So having that as a foundation will improve the conversations in these meetings on a whole range of issues.”

But Hart will select each member in the coming months, which some critics said Friday will hinder the commission’s goal of increasing police transparency and accountability, though Ponegalek defended the process.

“Honestly, I think it raises a flag when the chief himself is the person who is going to choose the members of the commission,” said Brian K. Williams, executive director of the Los Angeles County Civil Oversight Commission. “Under this model, the chief chooses who will be on this commission, and if there are voices in the community that the chief objects to, then perhaps those voices will not be heard.”

Ponegalek, however, said that Hart’s selection of candidates allows the boss to better understand the intentions of potential commissioners.

“There are certain people who will try to get on these boards and they have no intention of really trying to help — they just criticize and have their own agenda,” Ponegalek said, “against a group of people who are going to bring up difficult topics and have these difficult discussions. but their goal is to make society and the police department a better place.”

But Sheila Bates, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Los Angeles, said police chief-led oversight is difficult to enforce.

“Real oversight requires independence from the chief of police, the police department and the city,” Bates wrote in an email.

“An independent civilian oversight commission is needed,” she added, especially in the context of several police killings in recent years and the text messaging scandal that has erupted.

The Los Angeles County College, like Torrance’s new college, was originally set up as an advisory board and, according to Williams, did not have enough power to bring about any real change in the department.

Torrance officials and police critics disagree over new advisory commission's ability to bring about change
Mayor patrick fury (left) announces council chambers have been cleared as black lives matter protesters disrupt a torrance city council meeting on tuesday, june 4, 2019. Protests at the weekly council meetings are linked to the torrance police killing of christopher deandre mitchell in december. (photo by scott varley, daily breeze/scng)

However, with more powers, the commission has gained the power to subpoena witnesses, obtain documents and conduct reviews of police policies and procedures, Williams said in a previous interview with the Daily Breeze.

Williams expressed concern that the Torrance commission might follow the same trajectory as his own in the early stages.

“What real power will this have,” Williams said, “and will it really lead to significant change and transparency within the department?”

Ponegalek said the city created an advisory council rather than an independent civilian oversight commission because that’s part of Hart’s mandate.

The creation of a civilian oversight commission in Torrance would require a change in the city’s charter, which only voters could do.

A bylaw amendment on the ballot would also require a city council majority vote. In a previous statement to the Daily Breeze, Mayor Pat Fury said reaching such a consensus would be difficult.

“One of the things that he (Hart) plans to do with this advisory board is a dialogue about different models of civilian oversight,” Ponegalek said. “They could create something where they would be part of this process to create a fair and impartial police department.”

Ponegalek also cited Senate Bill 2, a new law sponsored by State Senator Stephen Bradford, D.R. Gardena, that establishes a system to investigate and de-certify police officers accused of serious misconduct. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law into law on September 30.

Among other things, the bill provides for the establishment of an Accountability Unit for Enforcer Standards within the existing Enforcement Standards and Training Commission.

The Accountability Division will be responsible for reviewing law enforcement investigations. It would also allow the unit to investigate allegations of excessive force, sexual harassment, and displays of bias and dishonesty—and could result in the officer being disqualified.

“This will be another important element of law enforcement oversight across the state,” Ponegalek said.

As for the advisory panel, it’s the department’s first step in improving relations between residents and police, Ponegalek said, and it’s meant to provide city law enforcement with a direct, formal forum to explore what issues matter most to the community.

“The intention is to really get in there and talk about the real problems that the city of Torrance is facing and help him (Hart) solve those problems,” Ponegalek said. “It will really add a direct connection to the community members.”

Williams, for his part, called the move “a start.” But, Williams added, he’s not sure how transformational the advisory panel will be in the long run.

“Obviously, this issue is on the radar of the Police Department and City Council,” Williams said. “I’m not sure that this will calm the community members and solve their problems.”

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