By Richard Stone
Rick Rasmussen, our Man in the O.I.R. (Office of Independent Review), has been on the job for about four months and has filed his first report. I met with him to discuss the impact of his work.
Rasmussen continues in a half-time capacity through June, when both he and the City of Fresno will review their options. His main task to date has been to review the findings of the Fresno Police Department’s Internal Affairs (IA) on every complaint filed against the police. He also reviewed a backlog of cases from before his hiring and checked on how the recommendations of his predecessor, Eddie Aubrey, have been acted on.
Rasmussen presents himself as basically a happy camper on the job. He feels he has open lines of communication with City Manager Mark Scott and Mayor Ashley Swearingen (who he calls “awesome” in her support). He has been given immediate access to all complaints and inter-departmental communications about said complaints. And he has been finding, in his review of cases, a high level of thoroughness and professionalism in the work of Internal Affairs. Moreover, he feels confident that his very presence as a knowledgeable and impartial evaluator has improved the quality and care of investigations and he believes that his experience with police procedures has already enabled him to make useful suggestions that have been readily accepted.
Rasmussen does say, though, that he is still feeling his way into the situation and still trying to get a big picture. In his first report, he has looked more at technical problems (which are often corrected by better training and clearer directives) rather than at broader policy issues where habitual attitudes and intractable differences of opinion may come into play.
Thus, his major recommendations this time round involved instituting “arrest check” procedures whereby a supervisor will regularly interview arrestees as to their treatment, making sure that officers are certified to use the weapons they carry and following up on his well-publicized (he says “over-publicized”) questioning of the average number of rounds fired in officer-involved shootings (OISs).
One of my informants remarked, “Wouldn’t it be better to ask about the number of people being shot rather than about the number of bullets used?” But, Rasmussen says, three months in is too early to comment on those big questions, especially given that most cases of OIS opened on his watch are still pending. He also told me that Chief Jerry Dyer has said the goal is to complete OIS investigations within six months, adding, “As soon as one’s done, I’ll audit it.” If expectation is met, there should be more trenchant comments in the next report.
Rasmussen clarifies for me that, although he looks at every case, he only “audits” thoroughly the few that are not routine. Most he labels “AD” (administrative discretion) and passes on. The others, labeled “AU” on the report, he examines closely. Looking over the report, I am somewhat assured to find at least a few where the IA has sustained the complaint (the other possibilities being “unsustained,” or exonerated, or “unfounded,” meaning there is insufficient evidence for a fair judgment). The report also shows a couple of instances where Rasmussen has overruled the IA’s findings. However, it is impossible for the public to know from the report how the FPD acts in those cases. And therein “lies the rub,” to steal a phrase from Hamlet.
For a citizen looking at the report, there is little to know for certain. The cases are listed by number, and while the complainant can seek out the case identity and is entitled to know the results of the case review, no one else is so privileged. And it is not yet clear if even the complainant whose case is sustained can know the resulting action. Also, even the OIR, as the position is defined, has no access to those decisions. (Rasmussen reminds me that police officers have rights to confidentiality, too, creating areas where public trust is required but has to be earned.)
The OIR also has no ready access to information regarding lawsuits against the FPD and/or the City resulting from police actions even though limiting the damages of such suits is a major rationale for the OIR’s existence. This information would have to come directly from Scott’s office or the FPD.
One policing issue Rasmussen has already become directly involved with outside the IA reports is the towing of cars after DUI stops. From early discussions with the FPD, it is his conviction that the FPD is “one of the most progressive in the state” regarding the issue. “It’s a huge waste of police time, and no one joined the force to wait around for the tow truck to show up,” he says.
Yet advocates from El Concilio de Fresno and the Central California Criminal Justice Committee (CCCJC) continue to have concerns. Rebeca Rangel of CCCJC says, “The policy may look good on paper, but we have people reporting all the time about cars taken, jobs lost, families being disrupted by tows that could have been avoided.” To his credit, Rasmussen has recently met with community members and the head of traffic enforcement to look more closely at what’s going on. To be continued…
Rasmussen has also followed up on all of Aubrey’s recommendations. Those that he found especially compelling (e.g., implementing computer tracking of complaints and trying to get video equipment that can monitor all police stops), he has stayed on top of. Many others are listed in the report as being “Incorporated into” the police manual, although it is not ascertainable if that means they are being followed in practice. Rasmussen says, “The degree of implementation of recommendations is outside my purview. But having policies on the books means that if a case comes to my attention I have a tool for sustaining a complaint.”
So, the big questions concerning the effectiveness of the OIR are still unanswerable. Rasmussen believes he is having a positive impact and that there will be a significant decrease in serious sustained complaints. Ellie Bluestein, a long-time advocate of police oversight and a founding member of the CCCJC, trusts Rasmussen and believes the process of getting accountability from the FPD is moving forward.
Mike Rhodes, long-time critic of the FPD (and editor of this newspaper) is skeptical. “What’s happened with Glen Beaty and with Angelo Fernandez [well-publicized cases of alleged serious misuse of force]? We still don’t know and can’t find out. Until we see justice in high-profile cases like these, I look at the OIR as window-dressing.”
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.