Fresno Commission for Police Reform

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Where did it come from? Where is it going?

By Gerry Bill

Following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and dozens of other men and women of color wrongfully killed by police across the country, a powerful movement against police abuse and police violence has emerged. The movement is not only strong in the United States but also has become international as well, with protests and other supportive actions happening on six continents in cities such as London, Brussels, Sydney, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, Monrovia (Liberia) and even Idlib (Syria). But what about Fresno?

Formation of the Commission for Police Reform

Well, in Fresno there is also a strong movement of citizens against police violence, most notably headed up by the young people who run the Fresno State chapter of the NAACP. On May 30, just five days after Floyd’s inexcusable killing, the Fresno State group organized a large (for Fresno) demonstration, with more than 3,000 protesters gathered in front of City Hall, who then marched to the Fresno Police Department (FPD) headquarters.

Less than two weeks later, on June 11, following a persuasive presentation by the student NAACP President D’Aungillique Jackson and others, the Fresno City Council voted to form the Fresno Commission for Police Reform. Members of the 37-member commission were announced on June 19, and it was charged with making recommendations to the City Council within 90 days.

The commission is headed by former City Council member (and former police officer) Oliver Baines. Including Baines, there are eight current or former cops on the commission. That might sound like a lot of police representation, but there are still 29 other members who do not have law enforcement backgrounds. Several of the other 29 members are well-known community social justice activists, which has given hope that the commission will make some significant recommendations.  Whether their recommendations will be accepted by the city is, of course, another story.

We now are well past the 90-day mark, and the commission is still doing its work. The city gave them a 30-day extension. As of this writing, the commission is scheduled to meet on Oct. 26, at which time it might be making final recommendations.

Survey of Community Attitudes toward Police 

Of particular interest are the findings of one of the four commission subcommittees, specifically the Community Input Subcommittee, which is headed by D’Aungillique Jackson. (The other three subcommittees are Police Budget, Community Development and Police Tactics, Training, Policy and Philosophy.)

The Community Input Subcommittee gave its preliminary report at the Sept. 28 meeting of the full commission. The Fresno State Sociology Department was enlisted to gather data from the community on behalf of the subcommittee. The effort was headed by Sociology Professor Dr. Andrew Jones. They did an online survey, conducted focus groups and analyzed e-mail comments sent in to the subcommittee by community members. The online survey was distributed in five languages and got 4,033 responses from people with city of Fresno zip codes.

In addition, to include those without online access, paper copies of the survey were distributed to homeless people on the streets of Fresno by We Are Not Invisible (Dez Martinez’s group). Martinez and her colleagues were able to collect 214 paper responses from the homeless.

The results of all those efforts were shared by Jackson at the full commission meeting. Meanwhile, the Fresno State Sociology Department is continuing its work for the subcommittee by doing a randomized telephone survey, with results scheduled to be shared with the commission at its next meeting.

The findings of the research team are pretty disturbing, but perhaps not that surprising to readers of the Community Alliance. Professor Jones said that the research findings provide strong evidence that Fresno is, in reality, two cities, as captured by the phrase “a tale of two cities.” When the research results are broken down by race and neighborhood, stark differences emerge.

Breakdown by Race, Neighborhood and Homeless Status

It turns out that non-White respondents are far less likely to trust the FPD than are White respondents, non-Whites report being stopped by police at much higher rates than Whites, and non-Whites are far more likely to believe that police frequently use excessive force than do Whites. In other words, the perception is that if you are White, the police are your friends, but if you are non-White, not so much. In the words of the report itself, the “analysis of responses broken down by racial groups reveals a consistent pattern of distrust and negative experiences among nonwhite respondents.”

The neighborhood breakdown reveals the all-too-familiar north/south divide that characterizes Fresno. It was broken down by zip code, and zip codes with the highest percentages of Whites had respondents who were more likely to think the FPD does a good job, more likely to trust the police, less likely to report being stopped by police on a frequent basis and would more likely feel comfortable calling the police in a non-threatening situation than the respondents in the zip codes with the greatest percentages of non-Whites.

The paper responses from Fresno’s homeless population are also revealing. Question 7 asked respondents to briefly share an experience where they felt either discriminated against or received preferential treatment by the Fresno Police Department. In the words of the report itself, “from the paper surveys [of homeless], one definite concern that emerged from responses to Question 7 revolved around the Homeless Task Force and issues of intimidation, harassment and assault.”

Below are a few of the comments from the homeless population about the FPD Homeless Task Force that were highlighted in the report.

“I’ve been spoken to in a condescending manner, disrespected more than once, felt physically intimidated and threatened by their power of office and their physical strength.”

“I have been harassed or arrested by the city police on several occasions, and it is always a humiliating experience. They are very verbally abusive with their profiling and judgment put-downs. I felt less than human. Make fun and false accusations.”

“Homeless task force are assholes who love to beat anyone who doesn’t move fast enough.”

“Police have repeatedly stolen my personal items such as my ID and wallet, my clothes/food/hygiene. I’ve been pushed (moved) on a number of occasions. I had 4 pairs of shoes, they stole the left of each pair (they thought this through).”

Attitudes toward Fresno’s Office of Independent Review (OIR)

Question 15 of the survey, after explaining what the OIR is, asked “How would you rate the performance of the City of Fresno’s Office of Independent Review?” The answers are pretty revealing. Most striking, 42% of respondents said they knew little or nothing about the OIR. This could be the result of the current OIR, John Gliatta, keeping a low profile (compared to his predecessor). That, in itself, is a problem.

Equally troubling is the fact that, of those who did know something about the OIR, a majority of them rated the OIR as somewhat bad or extremely bad. In the words of the report, “Something is wrong with a program that should be so important to the residents of Fresno and 64% know little or nothing about it and/or rate it as performing poorly.”

It should be noted that the responses to the survey were largely already in when news broke that the OIR’s John Gliatta had hidden a crucial report from public view. By mid-May of this year, Gliatta had completed his report on the brutal beating of Fresno teen London Wallace by a Fresno police officer back in January 2019.

Normally, the report would have been included in Gliatta’s regular quarterly report in July of this year, but he decided to sit on it for four months out of fear that it would spark unrest in Fresno. Gliatta has been widely criticized for concealing the report. He told the commission about the previously undisclosed report at its Sept. 16 meeting, but the information was not made widely available to the public until Sept. 21.  

Coincidentally, Sept. 21 was also the closing date for the Sociology Department’s survey on public attitudes toward the police, including their attitudes about the OIR. So news about Gliatta’s missteps in the London Wallace matter probably had little impact on the negative attitudes respondents had about the OIR. A majority of people who knew about the OIR already gave it negative marks without having learned this new, severely damning information about Gliatta’s behavior.

Focus Group Responses

The research team also asked a series of questions of participants in six focus groups. The focus group responses largely mirrored the survey results. Many respondents noted that there are two Fresnos, the one in the north and the one in the south.

When asked how they felt about the service provided by the FPD, they said things like “There is a big disparity in treatment depending on where you live.”

The report characterized the findings on this question with these words: “Policing in North Fresno is very different from other parts of the city, like West Fresno…Police take a longer time to respond and they are more hostile in West Fresno compared to North Fresno where there is a quicker response. Oftentimes in West Fresno, if someone calls the police to report an incident, that person is the one who feels under attack.”

When the focus group participants were asked if the FPD used race when setting enforcement standards, the answer was an emphatic yes. The report said that, for residents of color, they feel like they are “walking while [B]lack, driving while [B]lack, and living like Black. They feel that since they are [B]lack, they will have issues until they die. The police make [B]lack individuals feel like they are guilty until proven innocent. While the police may say that the standards are the same regardless of race, police behavior shows that these standards are not equal across the board.”

The report says that even the White participants in the focus groups felt that way. As one participant stated, “I think you would have to be deaf, dumb and blind at this time not to feel race is involved.”

Focus group members who knew about the OIR were not fond of it. One participant said, “I have no trust in independent review or especially those that are part of the police department or the city administration or anything like that.”

Another respondent said: “The [Office of Independent] Review is just smoke and mirrors that only places a band-aid on issues.”

Again, these negative comments were made before it became known that the OIR was hiding a crucial report from public view.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the focus groups was their reaction to the question “How do you feel about previous efforts at police reform in Fresno?” Answers: “What reform?” “It’s a dog and pony show.” “Previous police reforms have been responses to police shootings and are ‘band-aids.’ These ‘band-aids’ cover-up the problem and wait for them to go away without making real change.” This doesn’t bode well for meaningful reforms happening in the future.

Recommendations of the Community Input Subcommittee

Based on the findings of the research team, the Community Input Subcommittee came up with several recommendations for the entire commission to consider adopting. Below are some of their recommendations.

Regarding the north/south divide: “The City of Fresno should focus on building trust in South Fresno by investing more money on social support services and opportunities for youth rather than saturating their neighborhoods with more police.”

On the handling of the homeless issue: “Collaboration with social workers and mental health professionals involved in addressing homelessness in our city to help bridge the communication and understanding gap between our police officers and the homeless population.”

For independent oversight of police misbehavior, the subcommittee had three recommendations:

  • “Create a community oversight board with the ability to hire a new Independent Reviewer based on recommendations from community-based organizations, and most importantly, that reflects the diversity of Fresno in terms of race, gender, and district/location. The overarching goal of the community oversight board should be to hold the OIR accountable, facilitate a community engagement process, collect and review data/feedback, and work in conjunction with the OIR leadership on a formal public communication process with transparency and equitability at its core.”
  • “A significant overhaul of the Office of Independent Review’s structure and accountability process to ensure equitable community representation and timely access to its findings.”
  • “Hire a new Independent Reviewer based on recommendations from community based organizations.”

Finally, there is a recommendation from the committee aimed at outside “policing” of the process of police reform itself. Here is the recommendation: “Have the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform perform an evaluation of what recommendations have been approved and rejected twelve months after the Fresno Commission for Police Reform’s work is done. Fresno City Council must contribute by writing a report detailing why recommendations were rejected, if any.” Will the City Council go along with the idea of an outside body second-guessing its decision?

Other subcommittees are making recommendations about not using police to respond to mental health and homelessness issues, placing more restrictions on the use of force and shifting more of the City’s resources away from policing and putting them into alternative ways of dealing with issues that do not really require the presence of an armed officer.

There will also be recommendations about improved training and about restructuring Fresno’s police oversight body. It seems unlikely that the law enforcement members of the commission will be able to completely quash these ideas. However, in the end, these will just be recommendations to the City Council, where lobbyists from pro-police groups and the police union will likely try to neutralize many of the more significant recommendations.

This might all come before the City Council in November, and a big public turnout at the (online) council meeting might be called for. We will need to keep a close eye on how they handle all this.

Meanwhile, in mid-October, Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall asked for a $10 million increase in the police budget for next year. So much for the defunding of, or even the reallocation of, the resources devoted to the FPD.

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Gerry Bill is professor emeritus of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College. He is vice president and treasurer of the Eco Village Project of Fresno and as such oversees daily the operations of the Dakota EcoGarden. He is also on the boards of the Fresno Free College Foundation/KFCF, Peace Fresno and the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, and is past co-chair of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee.