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It seemed, three decades ago, like a triumph of reform and empowerment.

Amid rising allegations of brutality and cover-ups, Long Beach residents voted to rein-in their police department through a new civilian oversight panel, whose 11 mayoral-appointed members would represent the city’s rich diversity.

The charter amendment that created the pioneering Citizen Police Complaint Commission was the work of a grass-roots movement that promised voters a new era of police accountability, especially in Black communities.

The effort was championed by two neighborhood activists. One, Barbara Shoag of the League of Women Voters, would later be named as the CPCC’s first chair. The other, Alan Lowenthal, would become a City Council member and then move on to Congress.

“We were all jubilant,” Shoag recalls of the measure’s passage in April 1990. “We had worked very hard and it passed in all nine [council] districts. We were so excited to have achieved our goal of civilian review of the police department.”

But as Shoag and Lowenthal now concede, the jubilation faded long ago when it became apparent that the winds of change would not be blowing through City Hall or the Police Department.

“I was naïve enough to think that true transparency and independence would happen, and it didn’t,” Rep. Lowenthal says.

Over the years, city officials have proudly pointed to the CPCC as evidence of Long Beach’s commitment to police accountability and transparency. In a 2018 interview with the Post, then-City Manager Pat West called the commission “a very, very precious thing,” a potential model for other Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies.

But the truth is that the CPCC has become largely a cautionary tale in these days of renewed calls for systemic police reform in Long Beach and beyond.

Almost from the start, the CPCC’s effectiveness was undermined by structural and funding obstacles that left it largely powerless to effectively oversee officer discipline or department policy, according to city records and interviews with current and former CPCC insiders, city officials and others with knowledge of commission operations.

Disciplinary recommendations against officers have routinely been rejected by the city manager, who, under the voter-approved charter amendment, has sole authority over the CPCC. The panel’s subpoena power has been rendered mostly meaningless by laws that protect police officers from being compelled to testify outside departmental or criminal proceedings.

The commission’s tiny staff, meanwhile, often shoulders a caseload of public complaints against officers so crushing that there’s scant time for rigorous investigation.

Despite the CPCC’s shortcomings, city officials have done little until now to bolster the operation. In fact, before protests erupted nationwide over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city had reduced the commission’s funding by $50,000 in the recommended 2020 budget. After the demonstrations, the City Council quickly boosted the commission’s spending moving forward.

Even the commission has, at times, failed to hold itself publicly accountable. For four consecutive years, the CPCC neglected to file annual reports detailing its work as required by its governing rules. It wasn’t until questions were raised this summer that the commission belatedly released all of them on a single day.

Today, 30 years after its creation, the commission’s shortcomings are coming under intense scrutiny as advocates and city officials look to learn from past mistakes in enacting new police reforms.

But as the CPCC experience shows, good intentions do not guarantee good results, especially as the hot spotlight of public attention dims with the passing years.

As Mayor Robert Garcia put it in June, shortly before hundreds of protesters converged on City Hall demanding change: “We have to do better.”

A brutal call to action

Two years before Rodney King, there was Don Jackson.

A Hawthorne cop-turned-activist, Jackson was on a mission to expose police racism and violence through undercover sting operations. On the night of Jan. 13, 1989, he set his sights on Long Beach, where Black residents had long accused White officers of racial profiling and excessive force.

Jackson and a friend, both Black, were pulled over just minutes after lawfully driving into Long Beach along Pacific Coast Highway. Their rented sedan had been outfitted with hidden cameras by NBC News.

After the stop, passenger Jackson is seen standing on the sidewalk as an officer profanely orders him to come closer to be searched. When Jackson challenges the officer’s authority, a second officer moves in. Jackson, as ordered, puts both hands on his head and faces one of the street’s storefronts.

Although Jackson offers no resistance, the officer suddenly gives him a quick shove from behind into a plate-glass window, which rains shards but does not leave him seriously injured.

Unaware of the cameras, the officers would falsely claim in their reports that the vehicle was being driven erratically and that Jackson had obstructed them, among other violations.

When the shocking video was broadcast to an audience of millions on NBC’s network newscasts, Long Beach and its Police Department were thrust into the center of a national debate over police abuse—and community activists were handed their own moment to strike.

“I was naïve enough to think that true transparency and independence would happen, and it didn’t.”

Rep. Alan Lowenthal

With an outraged public clamoring for reforms, Shoag and Lowenthal believed the best way to hold police accountable was for civilian oversight to be enshrined in the city’s charter, its constitution, which would require voter approval.

The Jackson scandal’s fallout was so great that the City Council, after some initial resistance, decided it would place the Citizen Police Complaint Commission measure before voters. That meant community advocates would not be forced to gather signatures to qualify it for the ballot.

But before the proposed measure even was put before the electorate, organizer Shoag became concerned about the city’s long-term commitment to the effort. In a draft of the measure, Shoag says, she discovered a clause that would “sunset,” or end, the commission after two years without further City Council action.

Irate, Shoag says she marched straight to the 14th floor of City Hall, to the office of then-Mayor Ernie Kell, to demand the clause be removed. She was told to make an appointment. Undeterred, Shoag then hit each City Council office.

When the next draft was released, the clause had vanished, though not her lingering concerns.

“There was no explanation given,” Shoag recalls. “It just kind of disappeared after I complained about it.”

In the spring of 1990, the CPCC measure passed easily with 57% of the vote, establishing civilian oversight through nine commissioners nominated by city council members and appointed by the mayor, who would also name two at-large panelists.

At long last, city residents, particularly those in Black communities, had reason for hope that their misconduct complaints would be independently pursued and that officers would be held accountable.

But lost in the electoral enthusiasm of the moment was the charter’s fine print establishing the commission’s structure and authority. In hindsight, it now seems clear that the commission would never be able to achieve those hopeful community expectations.

Putting reforms into reverse

It didn’t take long for Richard Lindemann to learn that the balance of power did not favor the CPCC.

During his four years on the commission, which ended in 2019, he says the panel was continually frustrated in executing its most fundamental responsibility—investigating complaints of officer misconduct and, if warranted, holding the perpetrators accountable.

The biggest barrier: The commission’s inability to interview accused officers or obtain their internal affairs statements. Despite the CPCC’s subpoena power, state law protects officers from being compelled to testify outside of departmental or criminal proceedings.

The city manager alone is given access to confidential portions of internal affairs probes, including officer statements, under his CPCC charter authority as the last word on officer wrongdoing and punishments.

As a result, city managers for years have routinely rejected the CPCC’s misconduct findings after closed-door consultations with police officials. They have argued that the reversals were justified because the commissioners relied on incomplete information, gathered from non-police witnesses and non-confidential documents.

Just last year, this dynamic unfolded with unprecedented frequency. The CPCC “sustained” 52 accusations of police misconduct ranging from excessive force to discourtesy. But the city manager ignored all but five of them—the biggest disparity in memory, according to the CPCC’s staff.

A recent city report on the commission’s work showed that, over the past four years, the city manager sustained just 28 findings of misconduct out of 112 recommended by the commission.

Lindemann says he complained repeatedly about the reversals and how city managers kept commissioners in the dark about the decisions both before and after they were made—no consultations, no details, no respect for the CPCC itself, the former commissioner charges.

“We had no authority over them,” Lindemann says of the department’s leadership. “They knew it. We knew it.”

Lindemann says he was particularly infuriated by one case in which these failings
coalesced—an investigation into whether City Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce was given preferential treatment by Long Beach police in 2017.

Here, based on police reports, is what unfolded on that misty June night:

California Highway Patrol officers discovered Pearce and her former chief of staff, Devin Cotter, along the 710 Freeway, parked in a painted median near the Golden Shore exit. It was well past 2 a.m., and the two were arguing outside Pearce’s car, which had all its doors open. Both individuals smelled of alcohol.

After Pearce promptly identified herself as a member of the City Council, the CHP radioed Long Beach police, who began an investigation of possible drunk driving. Pearce, who also told the newly arrived city officers that she was a council member, was placed in the back of a patrol car.

Cotter, meanwhile, was belligerently warning officers that he had Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna’s personal phone number and would use it unless they were allowed to leave. He also kept threatening to run across the freeway to use the Hilton Hotel’s bathroom. The officers ordered a slurring Cotter to stay put. One of the officers accessed records in his patrol car that showed Cotter was on probation for a DUI.

Pearce, who’d been driving that night, agreed to a field sobriety test. Three times, she missed her nose with her finger. She also had trouble executing a toe-to-heel walk, failing five times in 20 steps to perform the maneuver—even after being given permission to do it in her bare feet.

But Pearce did pass a Breathalyzer test administered hours after police first encountered the couple, a delay caused largely because the department summoned a specialized DUI investigator to the scene. By then, the test showed that Pearce had a blood alcohol level of .06, which was below the legal limit of .08. (Authorities would later learn that the Breathalyzer was faulty.)

With the blessing of police supervisors, Pearce was allowed to get a ride home with a friend while officers personally drove Cotter to his houseboat in the marina.

Three weeks later, the Police Department announced that an exhaustive investigation that consumed 300 work hours and included 22 interviews found no evidence of preferential treatment or other misconduct by the officers.

A lone “training issue” was identified that apparently related to the officer’s records query showing that Cotter was on probation for a DUI. In fact, he had an outstanding warrant for violating that probation.

Meanwhile, the CPCC had begun work on a public complaint it received about possible preferential treatment. Lindemann says the city manager’s office initially gave commissioners an eight-page summary so thin on details that they couldn’t even determine a timeline. After demanding more information, Lindemann says, the CPCC received about 35 pages of material that painted a fuller picture.

A majority of the commissioners concluded that the department tried to spare Pearce any legal trouble or embarrassment, Lindemann says. Among other things, they believed the council member should have been taken to the station and given a more sophisticated blood-alcohol test when her spotty sobriety test performance did not seem to square with the .06 she blew.

It wasn’t until months later that commissioners learned the city manager had overruled them and cleared the officers of wrongdoing. What’s more, Lindemann says, the city manager’s office refused to give the commission specific reasons why it had done so.

“To me, they were covering up from Minute One,” Lindemann says of the internal police findings upon which the city manager relied.

Pearce, for her part, insists she was given no breaks that night and was unaware the CPCC concluded that police acted improperly on her behalf. “I have no idea what happened at the CPCC, or who the commissioners were,” says Pearce, adding that she has long favored providing the panel with more authority.

No favoritism, city says

Even after his 2019 departure from the CPCC, Lindemann was still so angry about his experiences that he submitted a scathing “public comment” to the commission for its meeting this past May—about two weeks before Floyd’s death. He wanted all of it on the record.

Lindemann railed against the city manager for overruling the CPCC at a higher rate than ever and for a continuing lack of transparency with commissioners. He concluded by emphasizing that the CPCC was established by Long Beach voters and deserves respect from the city’s top executive.

“IF NOT,” he wrote, “then it should be Disbanded as a total waste of time and energy!”

Deputy City Manager Kevin Jackson, who works directly with the CPCC, insists his office does not pull punches to protect the police department or to shield the city from potential lawsuits brought by individuals whose misconduct allegations have been substantiated.

“We look at the relevant facts of the case and if there’s a violation of training or law then there’s going to be action,” Jackson says.

He acknowledges that his office did hit new highs last year in the number of CPCC votes it rejected. But that, he says, might be a reflection of a “perception shift” on the commission, leading its members to sustain more misconduct allegations than in the past.

“I can just point to the fact that we did have some new commissioners come onto the commission in 2019, and that could have something to do with it,” Jackson says.

Whatever the case, Jackson says, the CPCC charter amendment unambiguously vests final authority in the city manager, who has a right to review confidential police files and an obligation to keep them secret.

“While it appears we may be withholding information, we’re not withholding information that isn’t legally protected,” Jackson says.

He speculated that the city manager and CPCC would probably see eye-to-eye on most police misconduct complaints if commissioners could, like him, review the totality of evidence before making their decisions.

For that to happen, however, changes would likely need to be made to the state’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which governs how officers can be interrogated and what information can be disclosed in their personnel files.

For now, Jackson says of the commission: “They’re not really a body that’s independent to the extent that they’re actually deciding. They’re making recommendations.”

Hiding officer misconduct?

As a former civilian investigator for the CPCC, Tomas Gonzales wants you to know the dangers of an NFA. That stands for No Further Action, a classification applied to thousands of misconduct complaints filed with the commission over the years.

These never reach the point at which the commissioners and city manager are at odds over disciplinary action. They’re dismissed early in the process so the commission’s time is not wasted debating “frivolous and intentionally misleading complaints,” according to a city report on the topic.

City officials say that NFA cases are typically those in which investigators can’t reach the complainant, contact witnesses or find corroborating evidence.

But Gonzales and other critics allege that the NFA classification has been exploited to bury cases of officer misconduct without a thorough review. With only the barest of details, these cases are simply presented en masse to the commission for a single vote of approval during its monthly meetings.

“Were they used to shield officers? Definitely,” Gonzales says, estimating that about 20% of the NFAs he reviewed reflected legitimate complaints of officer misconduct warranting investigations and commission review. “It’s not an accident,” he contends, “it’s the way they do business.”

Last year, 91 of the 211 cases closed by the CPCC were classified as requiring no further action. In a four-year span between 2016 and 2019, more than half of all cases it investigated were classified as NFAs—434 out of a total of 838.

Gonzales recalls one memorable NFA case he investigated in 2003 while spot-checking a batch to make sure they were properly classified. It involved a 16-year-old boy whose skull was fractured during an encounter with officers.

According to the police account, the teenager was in the vicinity of an auto burglary and, during a foot chase with officers, fell off a building’s fence and onto concrete below. But a doctor who examined the boy believed he was more likely struck in the head with a gun.

Gonzales says he went to the scene, where he discovered that the building cited in the police report had no concrete behind it, only grass. “Everything pointed to it being a cover-up,” Gonzales recalls.

The case was reopened and, as a result, several officers were disciplined.

In 2006, Gonzales’ 15-year career as a CPCC investigator came to a contentious close. He was fired for alleged ethical lapses in trying to develop a business relationship with a person he had helped on a complaint.

Gonzales denied the allegations and sued the city, contending that the CPCC’s new executive director, a former police officer, was retaliating against him for aggressively pursuing officer misconduct against minorities.

“There is no accountability for the police in Long Beach.”

Former CPCC commissioner Porter Gilberg

Among other things, Gonzales alleged that NFA’s were being abused and that the executive director, William Ward, told him to toss complaints from Latino residents, who accused officers of excessive force and racial profiling. One of the executive director’s first actions, Gonzales said, was to delete the commission’s Spanish-language phone recording.

The new boss did not hide his affinity for law enforcement, Gonzales said. He displayed mementos of his police career in his office and often could be heard sharing a laugh with visiting members of the department’s brass. Gonzales accused the executive director of rewriting his reports to soften criticisms of the LBPD.

Gonzales said he complained that such behaviors were undermining the CPCC’s commitment to objectivity and independence. “I raised the issue and things started going downhill,” Gonzales said.

Ward, in court proceedings, refuted Gonzales’ allegations, insisting that he showed no favoritism towards the police and did not treat complainants differently because of their ethnicity.

Last year, after more than a decade of court fights, the city settled Gonzales’ whistleblower lawsuit. Without admitting guilt, the Long Beach City Council voted to pay $775,000 to Gonzales. His continuing calls for CPCC reforms have now found a wider audience in the wake of protests.

“I’d rather have nothing,” he says, “than what they have right now.”

Uncertain future for accountability

On a Friday night in early June, just days after George Floyd’s death, CPCC Commissioner Porter Gilberg stood before a crowd of thousands protesting police violence and racism in Harvey Milk Promenade Park.

“I have been on this commission for a year,” Gilberg began, microphone in hand. “I have been taking very detailed notes for a day like today so I can tell you what a farce and what a joke it is. There is no accountability for the police in Long Beach.”

He ticked off a litany of failings: the city manager’s dominance over decisions, the closure of complaints without commission review, the panel’s lack of access to critical information about officers.

Gilberg also took aim at a requirement for prospective commissioners—that they participate in a police ride-along after being fingerprinted for background checks. This, Gilberg argued, prevents “justice-impacted people from participating in the very process where their voices are most important.”

“The entire structure of this body needs to change,” Gilberg told the crowd.

Like other public and private institutions, the CPCC’s day of reckoning had come. Issues long simmering in private were now boiling over into public view, putting heat on city leaders to take swift action.

(Even Gilberg himself would be swept up in the widening calls for racial justice. Last month, The LGBTQ Center Long Beach ended Gilberg’s contract as its executive director after former employees alleged he created a hostile work environment for Black staffers and other people of color. Gilberg insists he was wrongfully accused and that The Center’s probe was biased. Gilberg, along with two other commissioners whose terms expired this summer, was not reappointed by the mayor to the CPCC.)

With interest in the CPCC at its highest level since its creation, the commission’s first meeting after Floyd’s death was far different from its sedate and tightly structured monthly gatherings of the past.

On the night of June 11, the commissioners demonstrated a new aggressiveness. During a Zoom convening, they questioned decades of their own practices and put an end to one of them: there’d be no more NFAs. Despite a heavier workload, the commissioners said all complaints must be reviewed moving forward.

The city’s elected officials, meanwhile, also found themselves under pressure to fix the one institution voters have created to hold police accountable.

“Sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk and maybe that’s what this is.”

Rep. Alan Lowenthal

Mayor Garcia, among others, vowed to explore a new charter measure that would substantially reshape the commission’s structure, potentially diminishing the city manager’s power.

Garcia declined to be interviewed about why he and other city officials did not act sooner to address the commission’s shortcomings. But his chief of staff, Diana Tang, insists the mayor is committed to working toward the creation of “a model commission” and “intends to be involved in the development of any ballot initiative.”

Although experts say such an electoral effort could take up to two years, other changes already are on the way, which have served to highlight the city’s past inaction.

Consider this about-face by the City Council:

Last year, before anti-racism protests swept the nation, the council cut $50,000 from the budget of the thinly staffed CPCC, which employs the full-time equivalent of only 1.5 investigators. At any one time, they may be juggling 90 cases or more.

Patrick Weithers, the commission’s current manager and a former CPCC investigator, said the caseload is so overwhelming that other staffers, including himself, jump in so complaints are resolved within the mandated timeframes.

“It’s just a real challenge sometimes,” he says.

But that challenge could get easier.

Rocked by the public outcry over systemic racism, the City Council reversed course and approved a $150,000 annual increase for the CPCC, with the first year of spending earmarked for a comprehensive study of potential commission reforms and innovations.

Weithers says that the new, ongoing funding could be enough to underwrite the cost of another much-needed investigator in the future.

Outgoing Councilwoman Pearce—the only council member who has been openly critical of police—says CPCC reforms have previously been a low priority because polling has shown only “marginal” public support. At the same time, there has been a belief around City Hall that the powerful police union would likely oppose changes.

“If you were to poll on CPCC [reforms] today,” she says, “support would be through the roof. The narrative is there, community support is there and they’re not going to let it fade away.”

In fact, a report commissioned by the City Council on racial equity and reconciliation has called for a number of CPCC reforms. These include: greater transparency, increased funding and the hiring of an outside expert to identify potential structural changes to the commission with an eye toward possibly creating an entirely new oversight body.

In the meantime, CPCC Chair Christian Cooper says the commission will continue to work toward reforms within its existing structure and legal limitations. He notes that the commission’s elimination of NFA’s demonstrates how some improvements can be rapidly made.

“What’s the alternative,” he asks, “doing nothing?”

Commission architects Shoag and Lowenthal are optimistic that, after so many years, the moment is ripe again to strengthen police accountability by drawing on three decades of CPCC experience.

“Sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk and maybe that’s what this is,” Lowenthal says, looking back on the CPCC’s birth. “We wouldn’t even be at this point talking about reforming it if it hadn’t been created in the first place.”

“We did the best that we could,” Shoag adds, “but it was not nearly what we wanted.”

“For something to be done politically it has to be the right time,” she says. “Don Jackson was the right time for the CPCC and George Floyd could be the right time for police reform to happen.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.