[Los Angeles County] Pomona residents are calling for civilian oversight of police department, here’s how the chief sees it

Blog note: this article references a 2018 Los Angeles County Grand Jury report.

For weeks, a small group of Pomona residents has been advocating for a civilian oversight commission to address what they say are ongoing issues with the police.

Community activist Benjamin Wood said he is not only calling for the firing of two officers, he and residents would prefer to see a civilian commission established which would have subpoena power, ability to discipline, hire and fire officers. He would also like it to have the power to promote personnel and ensure there is gender and racial justice within the department.

Calls for public surveillance of the department started in late January after two officers who were acquitted of charges stemming from the September 2015 violent arrest of a then-16-year-old at the Los Angeles County Fair. But Wood said residents have long wanted a civilian oversight commission to keep officers accountable.

“They know that nobody’s looking over their shoulder,” he said by phone earlier this week.

Chief Michael Olivieri, who was sworn into the position 11 months ago, acknowledged the push for an oversight commission is not new in Pomona. The last time he recalled the topic coming up was during then-police Chief Dave Keetle’s tenure, which ended in 2014.

But he’s skeptical a civilian commission would have prevented the L.A. County Fair incident because the circumstances of the case were extraordinary, he added.

Recent steps have been taken to improve transparency, Olivieri said, such as equipping officers in late 2017 with body-worn cameras. According to 2018 figures released by the department, officers “interacted with members of our community through a call for service, enforcement stops, or other self-initiated activity, 128,212 times.” Of those interactions, officers employed non-deadly use of force 33 times.

There was one fatal incident last year, Olivieri said, when officers shot a suspect who had stabbed and killed a Cal Poly Pomona public safety specialist while in his patrol truck on campus.

At the chief’s direction, the department is complying with a new police transparency law that took effect Jan. 1; other departments are fighting it, even going as far as to destroy records in Inglewood and Long Beach.

Olivieri also is making changes to its internal affairs division following a 2018 Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury report that made recommendations about the way it handled citizen complaints.

The grand jury report noted that 44 of the 46 law enforcement agencies in the county do not have civilian oversight, a problem that should be “of great concern.” Instead, most departments have either an internal affairs unit or Office of Professional Standards which investigates complaints by the public.

Whether or not a commission is established, Olivieri said he is committed to meeting with this group of residents, or any citizen, about the Police Department which has 169 officers and 111 civilian employees.

Olivieri said he recently met with those who have been vocally critically of the department, with Mayor Tim Sandoval serving as mediator. He set up the meeting to reach out and to answer questions about the continued employment of the officers involved in the the Fair incident. The parties have agreed to meet quarterly to continue that dialogue.

The two officers have been reinstated but are not assigned to field duty, Olivieri said.

Olivieri, who was deputy chief when the officers were indicted, said the decision to place them on paid leave, rather than nonpaid leave or firing them, was done, in part, to preserve the officers’ due process rights.

When the FBI notified the department that it would conduct a criminal investigation into the three officers, the internal review was paused, he said. At that time, Olivieri said he served the department’s liaison with the FBI but never reviewed any of the 15,000 documents involved in the case.

Cpl. Chad Jensen was accused of striking teenager Christian Aguilar twice in the face in September 2015 before arresting him in what prosecutors argued was a violation of his civil rights. Both he and his partner, Officer Prince Hutchinson, who assisted Jensen in the arrest, were accused of falsifying a police report about the incident.

The officers were also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly giving false testimony during Aguilar’s criminal proceedings. The teen was charged with two counts of obstructing a peace officer and his father faced a charge of being drunk in public, but in both instances, the charges eventually were dropped.

In a separate case, Sgt. Michael Neaderbaomer, a detective in the internal affairs division, is accused of lying to Aguilar’s parents about evidence that did not exist and then lying to the FBI about his conversations with family. A court date is set for later this month.

After the January verdict, Olivieri was in the process of launching a new internal review of the officers’ conduct when he reached out to the FBI. The Bureau, however, told Pomona it couldn’t help until the Neaderbaomer case was resolved, Olivieri said.

While he wanted to control the investigation — there’s been a regime change since the incident — Olivieri also wanted to ensure the final determination could withstand public scrutiny. So he went to the city’s top administrators and informed them of his intention to hire an outside firm to handle and conduct the review, which they agreed.

Doing so also allowed the internal review to start immediately — with some possible interruptions — because the investigator would work with the FBI.

At recent council meetings, Wood has called on the council to take steps to create the commission. The council has so far been silent on the issue, which Wood knows might be tied to legal concerns. But any acknowledgement from elected leaders, he said, would be welcomed.

“The council has a responsibility to ensure that this department is a trustworthy institution,” he said.

Sandoval said he wouldn’t create an oversight commission unless a pattern of wrongdoing warranted it. If the council decides against it, residents can force the issue during the city’s charter review process in 2020, he said.

For Sandoval, the chief’s openness — to hire a third-party for the internal review and willingness to meet with residents — speaks to the culture he is creating his department.

Longtime resident Virginia Madrigal sees things differently. The sentiments raised by Wood and others don’t represent everyone, she said, asking the public to give Olivieri time to properly resolve the situation.

“We have to put our confidence in that, and that he will do whatever needs to be done,” she said.

Madrigal, who recently spoke at a council meeting, asked the public not to lose sight of the fact that these officers put their lives on the line every day. Since 1996, she said, the department has seen three officers killed in the line of duty. March 9 marks the one year since Officer Greggory Casillas was gunned down.

“We seem to have an atmosphere lately in our community that doesn’t support what we should be supporting, and that’s our police officers,” she said.

While Wood said Oliveri has explained the circumstances of the internal review, he still believes the two officers need to go.

“I understand why he needs to follow the letter of the law, so whatever solution he reaches will stick,” Wood said. “I want to see action, but I’m wiling to be patient.”

March 10, 2019

Daily Bulletin

By Liset Márquez

County: