By Richard Stone
As reported in our local daily on Sept. 4, the City of Fresno officially hired Rick Rasmussen as head of the Office of Independent Review (OIR) aka the police auditor. The good news is that Mayor Ashley Swearingen and Police Chief Jerry Dyer officially support—and undoubtedly pushed for—this second effort to fill the position. (Meanwhile, Fresno Police Officers Association head Jacky Parks calls it an unnecessary expense at a time of police downsizing.)
The bad news is that—still, and despite its title—the position has no real independence, no subpoena power, no ability to report directly to “we the people.” And many of us citizens still remember that previous Auditor Eddie Aubrey’s final report was quashed for months while unspecified editing took place and that there has been no follow-up report on how his recommendations have been implemented. The subordination of the OIR to the powers-that-be is a serious, and some say fatal, blow to the effectiveness of the position.
Among those who have been instrumental in pushing for oversight of our police department, with its long history of disturbing “misuse of force” charges against it, are members of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee (CCCJC). Some of its founding members have been documenting citizen complaints and pressing investigations of wrongful deaths and police brutality for decades.
Members of the CCCJC, including Ellie Bluestein, Matilda Rangel, Rebeca Rangel (no relation) and Richard Gomez met with Rasmussen before his public appointment. At the meeting, they pressed him about his willingness to stand up to police intransigence and its “code of silence,” about how effective he can be given the position’s limitations and about why he would leave a comparable position in Salt Lake City for this much trickier job in Fresno.
In response, Rasmussen agreed that the political rationale for filling the position at this time is probably the high cost of recent lawsuits against the police (rather than a burning desire for justice on the city’s part), but he felt the mayor and police chief saw clearly the financial necessity of reducing legal entanglements and regaining public trust, and he believed they would back him up. His long experience in the bureaucracies of the Air Force and the FBI prepare him, he said, to work with the initial hostility of the police union. His background growing up dirt poor in Southern California left him with a still-unsatisfied thirst for social justice and for protecting the underclass for which, he said, Fresno offers a greater opportunity to take on than does Salt Lake.
On the other side of the ledger, he was open-eyed about the political challenges here and that, he explained, is why he has taken the position on a part-time trial basis. “If I don’t get the cooperation and support I expect,” he said, “I will opt out.”
The CCCJC members in attendance were uniformly positive in assessing Rasmussen. Some thought they detected a toughness in him that Aubrey had lacked. All felt he had earned the chance to prove himself equal to the task and true to his word.
Among the array of progressives who have done battle against police brutality and prejudice, there is a range of responses to the value of the hiring. Bluestein, who has worked for police accountability for more than 15 years, is guardedly optimistic. “It’s a foot in the door,” she says. “Opposing it because it’s not all that we want won’t help.”
Kevin Little is a local civil rights attorney, just involved in a headline-garnering case involving the use of force on a man in police custody. He says that filling the OIR vacancy is a positive development, though clearly “to be maximally effective the auditor should report to an independent citizens’ review board.”
In contrast, others believe the appointment is window dressing, a sop to those clamoring for justice while leaving the power structure unchallenged. Mike Rhodes, the editor of the Community Alliance, has worked with several cases involving allegations of police abuse (e.g., the Glenn Beaty case and actions against the homeless) and is patently pessimistic, having no trust in the will of the mayor or the police chief to challenge the status quo.
Rhodes also echoes those who doubt the value of a part-time hire. “You can do the paperwork long distance. But the crucial job of earning the trust of the communities most affected by police misconduct has to be done face-to-face. How effective can [Rasmussen] be spending most of his time in Utah?”
Rasmussen has talked a good game. Now he needs to prove he can effect change in the relationship between a disgruntled public and mistrustful police department. To have a chance, he will need to know when alleged abuse has taken place. As soon as we have information on how best to report incidents to the Fresno Police Department, to the new auditor and to the CCCJC for monitoring purposes, we will let you know.
Central California Criminal Justice Committee
If you believe the Police Department of Fresno needs to be held accountable for its administration of the law and/or know someone who has been treated illegally by law enforcement in this town, come to a Central California Criminal Justice Committee (CCCJC) meeting and get informed. Meetings are informal but structured and never boring.
Information is power. The CCCJC meets the third Thursday of each month at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, 1584 N. Van Ness Ave. For more information, visit www.cccjc.org.
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at email@example.com.