By Richard Stone
Author’s note: Fresno’s current police auditor, Rick Rasmussen, released his second quarterly report in early April. On May 7, he held an open house to answer questions from the general public. Having read all three reports out of the Office of Independent Review (OIR; Rasmussen’s two and the one from his predecessor, Eddie Aubrey), had two long conversations with Rasmussen and attended the open house, I offer here my assessment of the OIR’s work so far.
Rick Rasmussen, head of the OIR, has maintained, in my eyes, every appearance of transparency and straight-shooting; he seems concerned above all with doing the job he’s taken on to the best of his ability. He is confident (a colleague of mine judges him to be beyond confident to the point of arrogance) that his presence is having a positive impact on the ethos of police conduct. He certainly seems unintimidated by police or city officialdom, free to express opinions and make recommendations.
Although his job description severely limits his scope of action (see below), he does have immediate access to all complaints against the police and the internal police review procedures. And he is convinced that such access alone (“knowing that eyes are on them,” as he puts it) makes for a more conscientious police force.
His reports indicate that he largely admires the professionalism and supports the procedures and findings of the Fresno Police Department Internal Affairs (IA), with occasional suggested reversals of their conclusions, and a few substantial proposals for policy review/change. For instance, his first report brought attention to the unusually large number of bullets used when officers resorted to gunfire. Rasmussen said at the open house that there appears to have been greater discretion used in the second period he reviewed.
In the current report, he questions the technique called “flipping” as a gratuitous show of force rather than a necessary way to get suspects into police vans. He feels sure that, by bringing this malpractice to light, it will be addressed. He also strongly recommends that the current two-path system of tracking complaints be consolidated into one. Although the recommendation has met bureaucratic resistance (“We’ve always done it this way”), he says he will continue to press for the change and is optimistic it will come to pass. He is also bringing together the various viewpoints concerning impoundment of vehicles, hoping to bring about a clearer and fairer policy.
All this is much to his credit. Still, there are two aspects of the OIR’s function that remain problematic. In his other comparable job in Salt Lake City, Rasmussen says he is given full scope to subpoena and cross-examine witnesses, to independently collect evidence, to sit in on procedures and to make independent public assessments. In Fresno (as carefully crafted by the mayor’s office and the police chief), the purview of the OIR is limited to reviewing completed Internal Affairs judgments and making recommendations to the city manager.
Although Rasmussen has, through visibility and force of personality, made his presence felt, his official work is profoundly circumscribed. So while he works full-time in Salt Lake City, his job here is part-time and mostly done online. Asked if he would be more effective if he worked full-time, he replies, “Given what I’m allowed to do, I’d be stealing from you if I took more than part-time pay.”
The other problem is the scope of the reports Rasmussen is able to publish. Already limited by legal protections given to the police for their safety, and by the defined aspects of the police work he is empowered to comment on, his reports are largely opaque to the public.
We can see the number of complaints, the disposition of them by IA and whether the OIR concurs with the decisions made. However, because cases are identified only by number, we have no immediate access to the outcome of specific or high-profile cases (such as the Glen Beaty incident of a couple of years back). No access to the department’s handling of officers engaged in multiple shootings or frequent complaints. No access even to whether the OIR’s recommendations are followed.
Rasmussen says, justifiably, “For those questions, given my limited role here, you have to ask the police.” But, uh, they show no interest in answering.
So my still-preliminary assessment is that Rasmussen’s presence is having a positive effect, but we still have no good way to evaluate the police department’s serious intent to reduce police violence and misuse of force. We may simply have to wait a few years and—if we can pry the figures out of the city offices—see if there is a reduction in lawsuits and damages paid through court decisions.
Meanwhile, if there are complaints to be made, forms are “supposed to be” readily available at police headquarters, community centers and online. If you have trouble filing a complaint, if you do not get called back for questioning regarding a complaint or if you are not satisfied by the complaint procedure, Rasmussen and his assistant, Erika Pelayo-Lopez, welcome calls at 559-621-8614.
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance. Contact him at email@example.com.