Oxnard Community Relations Commission Public Safety Subcommittee unilaterally dissolved amid great controversy

By George Miller

Oxnard Community Realtions CommssionOrlando Dozier, Community Relations Commission Chairman and 2013 City Council candidate, unilaterally dissolved all subcommittees, including the “Public Safety Subcommittee,” which had been established by a vote of the Commission . It was believed that the main reason for his action was that the subcommittee had been looking into allegations of police use of force. There was angry protest when the September 15 meeting was adjourned without a motion, second or vote. Some members reached out to officials and press to state their case that this action was wrong. The City Attorney has not yet ruled on a  legal foundation for the action. The subcommittee had recently been addressing the subject of police use of force, some of the unfortunate deaths that have resulted in recent years and what to do about it. Their results would have only been recommendations, with no legal force.

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Subcommittee members meet on 9/10/14, at table (l-r): Travis Kelly, George Sorkin, Chair Ernest Stein. Facing away is Homelessness Commission Chair Peggy Rivera. (Photo: Citizensjournal.us)

Background

It’s been a tough couple of years for the Oxnard Police Dept. (OPD), already short on budget and manpower (one of lowest officer/population ratios in the state for this high crime city).  The department, with strong public and City Council support, had made progress in crime reduction, but this reversed about a year ago, something they attribute principally to mandated massive release of prisoners by the state under court orders and gang crime.

Alphonso Limon

Alphonso Limon

There have been several high profile killings of civilians by police, some criminal suspects, but not all. The most traumatic one, which caused the most public concern, was Alphonso Limon, an innocent who inadvertently walked into a pitched gunfight between OPD and gang members, was mistaken for a perpetrator and fatally shot by police, some 16 times.  The circumstances were in contention, may still be, even though the DA’s report exonerated the department/officers of any criminal activities. The fact that Mr. Limon’s family was awarded a $6.7 million settlement and other considerations may suggest that it could have been handled better.

Because investigations and negotiations were underway, the police dept. could say little about the case publicly, which only increased public frustration, Numerous speakers protested loudly and repeatedly at city council meetings and public demonstrations, about this and other cases, some expressing distrust in the police, making accusations and demands (Other speakers had more measured views). These were emphatically and bitterly refuted by a spokesman for the police union at the Tuesday, September 16th City Council meeting. Assistant Chief Benites (not a union member, since he is in management) was asked about this by Citizensjournal.us (CJ) later that evening. He replied that police union members are frustrated that they have no mechanisms for stating their case and disproportionately hear only the more extreme opposition views, which they dispute.

The Public Safety Subcommittee of the City’s Community Relations Commission, which has a charter encompassing addressing discrimination, began to focus on the situation, by holding discussions at their meetings.

Action by the public

Speakers at meetings  have expressed concern about multiple fatal incidents and demanded body cameras on all field officers, changes in training/doctrine, “demilitarization” and a citizen police oversight/review board.  The public safety subcommittee had been holding meetings to discuss the situation, involving citizens, committee members, the Police Dept. and more. CJ attended the Wednesday, September 10th meeting, where about 30 people had a spirited, but largely productive meeting. OPD has had its own community outreach meetings as well.

The City Council has allowed public protest to go on for quite some time, without appearing, at least publicly, to address it or to agendize this issue for council meetings.  But in fact, active steps to look into using police body cameras have proceeded and are into advanced quotation and testing phases now. There appears to be broad city, public and police receptivity to doing this. The police have been in fact using audio recorders for quite some time and express general satisfaction with the results, One command level member felt that national public and police opinion had moved a great deal on this toward acceptance, especially prompted by the widespread use of “youtubed” police actions.

DozierOrlando

Community Relations Chair Orlando Dozier

Community Relations Commission involvement

The Community Relations Commission is an official Oxnard City government body, “established in 1961 to promote understanding and respect among all racial, religious and nationality groups and to discourage and prevent discriminatory practices against any such group.”

Commissioners

  Orlando J. Dozier Chairman
  Kenneth Robinson Vice-Chairman and former Chairman
  Mike Baxter Commissioner
  Travis L. Kelly Commissioner- also on Public Safety Subcommittee
  Mario Quintana Commissioner
  George Sorkin Commissioner- also on Public Safety Subcommittee
  Ernest Stein Commissioner- – also Chair of Public Safety Subcommittee

The Commission in turn established a Public Safety Subcommittee by vote of the members. There have been allegations of excessive use of police force, specifically against Latino “minorities” (which constitute 74% of Oxnard’s population per 2010 census).  Also because there were allegations of discrimination in this, the subcommittee saw fit to address them. As far as we know it is (was) the only formal, official city channel of inquiry outside of the Oxnard Police Department, although the county DA has investigated specific incidents.

The Public Safety Subcommittee held meetings to discuss the situation, with members of the public, subcommittee, city officials and OPD participating. The Wednesday, September 10th meeting was attended by subcommittee members Ernest Stein (Chair), George Sorkin and Travis Kelly; Assistant Police Chief Scott Whitney, Asst. Chief Jason Benites, Commander Eric Sonstegard and OPD Community Relations Manager Miguel Lopez. Also present were officials such as Steve Nash (Planning Commission member), Peggy Rivera, Homeless Commission Chair, Community Relations Commissioner Mario Quintano (also 2013 City Council candidate). Activists Elliot Gabriel (Organizer for Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective), Neil Martinez, Fire Marshall Sergio Martinez, along with some members of the public and Citizensjournal.us were also there.

The meeting was described by multiple attendees as productive. There seemed to be consensus that there is a problem; that some members of the public perceive police excesses, that public meetings such as this can be beneficial, that the police body cameras would be a net benefit to the community. The subcommittee discussed and passed a resolution (3-0) to hold a townhall to publicly air the issues. There was not any consensus about a Police Review Board, demanded by some, but opposed by Chair Ernest Stein and the Police Dept. Representatives.

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Neil Martinez

Neil Martinez noted the outcry over the police killings., favors security and body cameras, says cameras are no silver bullet but are proven to reduce complaints of use of force and help investigations,  asserted that we “need more of a sense of (police) accountability,” feels hopelessness in “getting information out,” feels there is “no sense of justice,” 

Elliot Gabriel

Elliot Gabriel

Elliot Gabriel claimed police “brutality,” warrantless raids, use of “Bearcat” (armored car)for even non-violent crime and cited an example of police overreaction. Gabriel is on record favoring a police review board.

Mario Cardena claimed police try to search houses without warrants, threatened him. 

Elsa Serrano said her son was ticketed for a seat belt infraction and accused of stealing the car he was in.

Homeless Commission Chair Peggy Rivera: “has concern for the city,” feels the police are doing a good job, “but there are some mistakes,” wants a review board, feels city should “come together in a peaceful, not aggressive way, said she has spoken to Chief Jeri Williams who she said sounded angry.

Commissioner/Subcommittee member Travis Kelly said outreach sounds good, but what kind of officer training is done, what lessons learned from the Limon, Rodriguez tragedies can be applied? Some OPD members “shouldn’t have a gun and a badge,” and “some are bad eggs.” Kelly was described as “impassioned” by three people CJ has interviewed. He claims he has been stopped and his daughter “disrespected” by police. He admits he is angry and says that is legitimate.

OPD Community Relations Manager Miguel Lopez discussed various department public outreach initiatives. He noted the spike in crime and said the department is looking into what it can do differently to address this, including soliciting more public help. They are conducting crime prevention seminars and analyzing crime statistics to determine patterns which might help guide prevention strategies.

Assistant Chiefs Benites and  Whitney, Community Affairs Officer Miguel Lopez (photo: Citizensjournal.us)

Assistant Chiefs Benites and Whitney, Community Affairs Manager Miguel Lopez at 9/10 subcommittee meeting (photo: Citizensjournal.us)

Assistant Chief Whitney says all field officers carry audio recorders, which have been invaluable in helping to resolve 90% of complaints. He feels that “incorrect stories get out,” that it is very hard to find “good people willing to put on a uniform,” that acceptance rate is very low and academy/probation dropout rates are high. He said that it’s in no one’s interest to hire thugs who disrespect people and that the dept. tries to hire people who “look like local people.”  With 800 violent crimes annually, this is a tough job,” he said, or words to that effect. He said he will provide a list of training requirements. Whitney also stated that claims that no officers were ever fired is untrue and that in the last 6 years, 9 to 10 were terminated and another 5 to 6 quit rather than face discipline. He is not opposed to the body cameras. Whitney also observed that even a perception of abuse must be addressed and that the department will work with community groups, as strong presence at meetings such as this help demonstrate.  He asked that the public/committee please bring legitimate complaints to their attention.  “Instead of being at odds, we can work together.”  Whitney also plugged the Police Citizens Academy and patrol “ride along” program, which the public can participate in.

George Sorkin (on Commission since April) was happy about police presence at the meeting, and wants to help address any misunderstandings among police, Commission and public. He is concerned about the impact of Department of Homeland Security policies upon “militarization” of the police, combat equipment and training, wants oversight on how it is utilized.

CJ interviewed Councilman and  Subcommittee Chair Ernest Stein on Thursday. He has been involved with civic affairs for about 13 years and was asked to apply for the Community Relations Commission by members of the community when the Oxnard City Council was soliciting for Commission applicants. He was first appointed on November 1, 2011 by the Oxnard City Council.

Mr. Stein favors the police body cameras, a townhall with the community and representatives with public safety to improve better communication and demonstrate that the concerns of community members are not being ignored, but opposes a police review board.

Stein said there had been past conflict about members’ ability to hold meetings because the Chair, in the past, refused to allow the Subcommittee to agendize meetings. The Bylaws Ad Hoc Committee has sought to change the verbiage in the Commissions’ bylaws so the Chair would not be the only one to have the ability to agendize meetings and items on the Commissions’ agenda. The bylaws revisions are slated to be discussed at the Commissions’ October meeting tentatively scheduled for  Monday, October 20, 2014.

Read CCR_By_Laws.  For comparison purposes, any City Council member may place an item on the agenda for discussion, but it takes a majority vote for an item requiring substantive action.

He asserts that because the Public Safety Subcommittee was expanded from an ad hoc committee to a standing committee through majority consensus and the Bylaws Subcommittee was formed by a vote of the Commission on February 25, 2013, it could only be terminated in the same matter, that he doesn’t believe the Subcommittee dissolution by Dozier was legal and in fact was immoral and unethical. The Commission bylaws specify what the duties are of the Commission Chair. The duties do not include dissolving Commission subcommittees or adjourning meetings.There has also been frequent disagreement on the accuracy and completeness of the minutes, which we still hadn’t seen online for the September meeting as of this writing and note other missing ones, too. There is also a question about why there are no video archives available to the public.

Conflict bubbled to the surface about this and other items more than once. Commission Vice-Chair Ken Robinson wrote a blistering memo: Ken_Robinson_Letter_-_CRC  to then Interim City Manager Karen Burnham (she is now Assistant City Manager) on 1/23 (Four days before the Commissions’ annual meeting and election of officers) , making strong accusations (strongly refuted subsequently: Rebuttal_Letter) of wrongdoing against Subcommittee Chair Ernest Stein and Council Member and Sub-Committee member Travis Kelly and calling for their their suspension, investigation and ultimate removal. It was interesting that this demand was made of the City Manager, since the chain of command is to the City Council, not staff. Council was copied, but Mr. Robinson did not also afford Mr. Stein the courtesy of a copy of such a damning missive and did not bring out his concerns in a Commission meeting while he served as Chair. CJ noted that Mr Stein did send Mr. Robinson a copy of his letter as it is noted on the CC.  However,  he did manage to distribute it elsewhere around the community. Stein finally secured a copy via a public records request and wrote a rebuttal (see copy). Mr. Robinson did not respond to requests for an interview by publication time.

Robinson’s power play failed, since Stein is still on the Community Relations Commission, although the subcommittee status is questionable.

Stein concluded by saying that Oxnard “needs a means for the public and Oxnard’s public safety agencies to get together to have a conversation about how we can arrive at solutions to problems such as this as part of a ‘system of checks and balances.'” By that definition, the Police Oversight Board doesn’t qualify, as it wouldn’t be appropriate and can only be established through the vote of the Oxnard City Council, which Stein opposes.

Right before the Tuesday, September 16 City Council meeting began, CJ  asked Community Relations Council Chair Orlando Dozier about his unilateral subcommittee dissolutions at the Monday, September 15 full Commission meeting. He said that he did this because they were taking on activities outside their intended scope. He did not address the unilateral or legal  aspects of the action. 

City Attorney Steven Fisher was also at the Sept. 15 Commission meeting, confirmed to CJ that there had been no ruling yet on the dissolution of the subcommittees and that past practices are being researched, as the by-laws do not specifically address the situation. He did not answer directly as to whether he believed the work being performed by the Subcommittee was consistent with the Commission Charter. The Assistant City Attorney who handles this was on vacation, so there was some temporary loss of continuity. Fisher believes it was legal for Dozier to terminate the meeting unilaterally without  a motion, second and vote, because  it was out of control, decorum was not maintained and it was not accomplishing its objective. He agreed that the Subcommittee would only have authority to make recommendations, which would have to be approved by the Commission, then the City Council.

CJ also spoke with Commissioner Mario Quintana, who was at the September 10 Subcommittee meeting, which he felt went well, but he was quite dissatisfied with the actions at the 9/15/14 Commission meeting, where Dozier unilaterally dissolved the Subcommittees, then failed to allow any discussion, quickly terminating the meeting. Quintana is in favor of the body cameras, review board and training/doctrine changes. He said he had experienced multiple ugly incidents by the police when younger, although he has never been involved in any criminal activities. When asked if he believed it was discrimination, he said that “some of the Latino officers are the worst offenders.”

Oxnard Police Department (OPD)

After the Tuesday (September 15th) City Council meeting, we talked with Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites for about a half hour.  He was at the Sept. 10th Subcommittee meeting and thought most of it was pretty good. However, he thought some of the rhetoric of Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective Organizer Elliot Gabriel and Subcommittee member Travis Kelly was excessively inflammatory, even unjust and was counterproductive to establishing an effective working relationship, although some good points were raised. 

Benites is on board with the body cameras for field officers. but opposed to a review board. He didn’t seem to think that training needed to be altered. He said officers already use audio devices and that “90% of complaints are resolved” with them.  The cameras would document even more and be a net benefit to the community. However, a system would not be a trivial  expense and would entail equipping the force with hundreds of cameras, communication/upload devices and “cloud”-based data storage system (Internet online). Estimates are about $1.6 million over a five year period.

The police have been in fact using audio recorders for quite some time and express general satisfaction with the results, Benites felt that national public and police opinion had moved a great deal on this toward acceptance, especially prompted by the widespread use of “youtubed” police actions.

Asst. Chief Benites referred us to: Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Points of Policing, the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, Incident Investigation Procedures and Department of Defense Excess Property Program (DoD 1033). He also urged the public to consider participating in the Oxnard Police Dept. 14 week Citizens Academy. He said that graduates come out with a far better understanding of the challenges faced by the police and that it may be the first such program also offered in Spanish. He’s also a big proponent of the Neighborhood Watch and recommends using nextdoor.com.

Mayor Tim Flynn

The Mayor opined to CJ on Wednesday that some protesters seemed to feel “disenfranchised.” He feels Oxnard should seek to engage them on the complaints and address the underlying problems. He said that Oxnard was quite “racist” when he was growing up there, against Hispanics, Jews, but doesn’t feel it is anywhere near that bad anymore. So, he would like to see the charter of the Commission updated, with a focus on bringing the community together.  He has said repeatedly that he does not advocate an oversight board, but wants better communications among community stakeholders. He favors police body cameras.

We welcome further comments from officials and the public.

 

George Miller is Publisher of Citizensjournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant, active in civic affairs, living in Oxnard.

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Steve Nash
Steve Nash
6 years ago

Mary Nash writes, “Well written summary of recent events. I especially appreciate the links to letter by CRC commissioners.”

And I, Steve Nash, second her comments. Excellent job of reporting by Mr. George Miller. You will find nothing like this comprehensive reporting in the Star!