By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
The future of citizen oversight of the La Mesa Police Department is still very much up in the air following a vote by La Mesa City Council to shelve a proposal by Chief Walt Vasquez.
On Sept. 10, Chief Vasquez presented a report to City Council on different potential models for citizen oversight of La Mesa Police Department. Residents and activists have been requesting some sort of oversight of LMPD following a 2018 incident at Helix High School involving an officer tackling a student to the ground who was in handcuffs.
After explaining various types of citizen review processes that are employed by different cities and counties, Chief Vasquez recommended the city adopt a Citizen Public Safety Panel — an 11-member panel appointed by City Council that would be a conduit between the community and police and add an increased level of transparency. The panel would receive information on police policies and procedures and be invited to participate in community activities.
That plan was not well-received by many residents who attended the Sept. 10 meeting, and the scope of it was also questioned by some council members.
“You are out in the community a lot, you work in partnership with the community,” said Council member Akilah Weber to Chief Vasquez. “I know that the department has a lot of community events — Coffee with a Cop, other things where people can come in and learn about the different things about being a police officer, workshops, etc. So how is this different from that, because I don’t really see much of a difference?”
Vasquez explained the key difference is that the panel would meet quarterly and the meetings would be open to the public.
Weber then pointed out that people who want to a complaint against the police would not feel comfortable addressing a public panel and asked Vasquez if complaints about officers are confidential. They are, he said, but can only be investigated if there is some kind of contact information for internal affairs to follow up with an investigation.
That the proposed public safety panel did not include a mechanism for citizens to review specific complaints against officers or conduct independent investigations on reported incidents was a major sticking point for the residents and activists that spoke at the City Council meeting.
“I’m very disappointed because this is a citizen’s advisory committee. The process here contradicts community policing,” said Jack Chu, a local activist who has organized a group of community members to look at citizen oversight of police. Chu added that the proposal was an “insult” his group. “We were given this resolution five days ago — no input, no chance to amend. Everyone knows we’ve been working on this, but we were not consulted.”
Chu said the panel idea did not adhere to the recommendations of a grand jury that made recommendations to cities in San Diego County on how to approach citizen oversight.
Janet Castanos, another community member who worked on the citizen oversight issue, described the proposal as a “betrayal of public trust.”
“This resolution, that is supposedly focused on increasing community involvement, was developed by city officials without any involvement from citizens of our diverse La Mesa community,” she said. “Instead, it was developed behind closed doors. How does this impact public trust?”
Besides being left out of the proposal’s development, community members’ other major complaint was that the panel proposal lacked any real oversight of police — no way to review questionable actions by officers that may occur.
According to Scott Tiedemann, an attorney that consults police departments who spoke at the City Council meeting, the issue is a legal one — La Mesa is a general law city, not a charter city, and therefore citizens are not permitted to review police matters.
“The government code talks about general law cities and who has authority over the police department, and it’s the police chief,” he said. “That control deals with issues like conducting investigations, control over peace officer personnel records.”
Tiedemann said most cities in California with citizen oversight are charter cities, although the city of Tulare and neighboring National City are general law and have had citizen oversight of police matters for more than 20 and 10 years, respectively. Council member Weber asked Tiedemann if those cities have lost any lawsuits over their citizen review boards and Tiedemann said no.
Tiedemann suggested that a better way for community members to get the kind of oversight they want is to petition to change La Mesa to a charter city. Council member Bill Baber voiced support for this proposal.
“You do have the power in your hand to change this if you want to move toward a charter city,” Baber said. “Just putting this on the table. It’s probably something no one wants to hear because it’s a longer solution, but it would be a cleaner solution.”
Mayor Mark Arapostathis noted that the process in developing some kind of citizen oversight broke down between the police and the community members and suggested starting over and going about it differently.
“I would ask that we continue this process and give some more direction for what we want this process to look like and who should be a part of this process,” he said.
Council member Colin Parent suggested using the makeup of the panel suggested by Chief Vasquez, or an existing group like the Community Relations Commission, to hold public meetings and develop a plan for citizen oversight. Council member Kristine Alessio also supported that suggestion.
After discussion, the council passed a motion by Weber for the city to form a task force for civilian oversight of the police with staff support, comprised of 11 members of various backgrounds and geographic locations of La Mesa that is directed to do community outreach and education about citizen oversight, determine what La Mesa’s needs are for citizen oversight and draft an appropriate policy. The task force will be an open application process with final appointment by the City Council.
A final version of Weber’s motion will be voted on at a future meeting after staff drafts a more formal resolution.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.