POMONA — After more than a year of rancorous debate that had intensified during the last month, the City Council has approved the idea of a commission to handle citizens' complaints against police.
The council voted, 3 to 2, to approve the public safety commission in concept. However, details regarding the extent of the commission's powers must still be hammered out by the city staff and city attorney and brought back for council approval.
'Goon Squad' Behavior
The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has demanded some type of civilian review over police since August, 1987, when police shot and killed a 21-year-old black resident who they suspected of cocaine possession. NAACP officials have charged that some officers routinely harass innocent residents, particularly in predominately black or Latino neighborhoods.
Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant, accusing such officers of "goon squad" behavior, had introduced a motion to create a public safety commission three times since Aug. 15. Last week, the four council members present split, 2 to 2, on a similar proposal.
Councilman Mark Nymeyer, who was not at last week's meeting, cast the deciding vote Monday night after stipulating that the commission would not have the authority to subpoena, discipline or fire officers who had been the subject of citizen complaints of harassment, brutality or use of excessive force.
As envisioned by Nymeyer, the commission would not be an independent investigative body, but would hold public meetings at which it would receive complaints from residents and refer them to the city administrator and the police chief. The Police Department would then conduct an internal investigation as it does now.
"I do believe (residents) should have a forum to file a complaint and believe the people who receive that complaint will energetically seek its resolution," Nymeyer said.
Although it would not possess the oversight powers that some residents and council members had sought, Nymeyer said the commission will provide an alternative for residents who feel they have been mistreated but are reluctant to complain directly to the Police Department.
Pleased With Decision
"I can sincerely empathize with someone who is intimidated to go up to the counter at the Police Department," Nymeyer said. "I may look like a typical Southern California white kid, but I grew up in a predominately black area in the Midwest and I know what it's like to be rousted by police."
The Rev. Walter Cooks, president of the Pomona Valley branch of the NAACP, said he was pleased with the council's decision.
"The people came away with a victory because we now have an avenue to register our complaints and they can be processed by an independent body that will not have biases and that will work for the betterment of the city," Cooks said.
Police Chief Richard M. Tefank stressed that under state law and the city's agreement with the Pomona Police Officers' Relief Assn., the department can not give the commission any more information about the resolution of complaints than is currently available to residents who file complaints. Complainants may only be told whether an investigation has been conducted and whether further action will be taken against the officer, Tefank said.
During public comment on the matter, Richard M. Kreisler, an attorney representing the Pomona Police Officers' Relief Assn., argued against a police review commission, noting that police in the city made more than 9,000 felony arrests last year.
"It's very hard to arrest 9,000 people and not have a complaint lodged," Kreisler said. He added sardonically: "Of course, none of these people did anything wrong. They were all in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Assumption of Validity
Kreisler charged that council members who favored a police commission automatically assumed citizen complaints are valid and condemned the officers involved without knowing all the facts.
"If I worked here, I would not want to be subject to a civilian review commission appointed by some of the people on this council," Kreisler said. "If morale is bad, I can understand. I wouldn't want to work for Mr. Bryant either."
Both Bryant and Councilwoman Nell Soto chastised Kreisler for his statements.
"I do not appreciate your sarcasm and facetiousness," Soto told Kreisler. "These things are not made up. They're complaints that come in every day. There are serious allegations being made and they do have some foundation."
Although Bryant had originally sought a commission with powers to subpoena officers and review police records, he said the action taken by the council this week will soothe tensions between residents and police.
"I think the public will be much more willing to support a cooperative Police Department and one that has an oversight committee on it," Bryant said.
However, Councilman E. J. Gaulding, who joined Mayor Donna Smith in opposing the measure, said the commission would not end discord in the community and could lead to a legal challenge by the police officers association.
"What you're talking about is still going to be a controversial thing and it may cost us a lot of money," Gaulding said.
At an intermission after the council's vote, Gaulding continued to argue with Nymeyer about the commission. Nymeyer said he could not understand his colleague's opposition.
"I told him, 'Jay, we didn't give up anything,' " Nymeyer said. "Now (residents will) have a place where they can stand up and just sound off a little bit. That's very valuable to them. That gives them a sense of security."