Family members of Steven Vargas participated in this protest in front of the Fresno Police Department headquarters last year. Vargas was shot and killed by Fresno police. The ACLU is asking for an investigation of the Fresno Police Department’s practices by the Department of Justice.

ACLU’s Request for Department of Justice (DOJ) Investigation

On February 9, 2009, Fresnans watched a video of the beating of a homeless man by two police officers on the television news. People were shocked and outraged. On February 11, representatives of 13 Fresno organizations met to determine a united and effective response. The group composed a statement calling for five actions by the City of Fresno and the Police Department: 1, A pattern and practice investigation of the Fresno Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice; 2, Implementation of an Independent Police Auditor (IPA) in the City of Fresno; 3, Community meetings with the police department and other city officials; 4, Culture and sensitivity training for the police department, and 5, Full implementation of community based policing. By the time the group presented this statement at a joint press conference on February 13, the list of participating organizations had grown to 20.

The Central California Criminal Justice Committee (CCCJC) had been working for 10 years by then for the establishment of an IPA. And over those years, committee members had heard many horror stories of police abuse, excessive use of force, and inadequate
response to complaints. And that is why the first action called for in our joint statement was a DOJ investigation. This was even before the 10 officer-involved shootings that took place in 2009. For a number of years, members of the CCCJC had already been sending information about the Fresno Police Department to the DOJ. When the Fresno Area Chapter of the ACLU was formed in March 2007, we also began receiving complaints from people about the police department.

Finally, the Fresno Chapter of the ACLU wrote to the Department of Justice on February 16, 2010, to request a pattern and practice investigation. With our letter, we sent a three-inch binder of materials supporting our request. On February 26, the DOJ wrote us to say that they had received the request and would carefully consider it. Because the letter suggested that we send additional information, we wrote a second letter on June 23 and sent it with additional materials.

We included in that second mailing the Fresno Bee article from April 24 that said the Fresno County DA would stop investigating Fresno officer-involved shootings. On July 14, members of the CCCJC, the League of Women Voters and the Fresno ACLU met with Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Eddie Aubrey the OIR (Office of Independent Review) and a few other city officials about that situation. City officials seem to be as upset by the DA’s decision as we are. They know that it is not credible to have the only investigation be a self-investigation by the police department. I was surprised by some of the information I got from that meeting. The DA stopped investigating new incidents as of February 25, 2010. It will finish the previous investigations, but there are 37 unfinished investigations since 2004. The DA still investigates officer-involved shootings in every city in Fresno County except Fresno.

Apparently, the DA thinks that because Fresno has an OIR there is no need for an additional independent investigation. But, of course, the OIR is not authorized to do investigations. Even if he were, it would still be a situation in which the City Manager’s Office investigates its own departments, which wouldn’t add any credibility. If you are also disturbed by this situation, it is time to write letters and e-mails to the DA, the County Board, the Fresno Bee, your state legislator and the attorney general. Our original request for a DOJ investigation is partly aimed at increasing the credibility of the Fresno Police Department. The DA’s decision to drop investigations further harms that credibility and could threaten the public safety.

There are lots of things to do in the four-county area served by the Fresno Area Chapter of the ACLU. If you would like to get involved or merely learn more, you are welcome at our next Board meeting on August 2 at 7 p.m., or at our next committee meetings on August 30 at 7 p.m., both in the Sarah McCardle Room of the downtown library.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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