In the last two years, Long Beach’s top employee has overturned dozens of decisions made by the civilian commission that investigates police misconduct in the city. In the vast majority of those cases, the revised decisions favored the officers accused of wrongdoing.

From December 2016 to November 2018, City Manager Pat West disagreed with the 11-member Citizen Police Complaint Commission in roughly 5 percent of the panel’s 624 decisions, according to statistics compiled by the Long Beach Post through a review of the CPCC’s records.

In 26 of the 33 decisions he overruled, West changed the outcome in a way that favored officers.

The CPCC’s executive director and chairwoman both said they weren’t aware of these numbers until the Long Beach Post presented them, but both said these vetoes are accepted by commissioners, who sometimes question why their decisions are overturned but nevertheless understand their word is not the final say on whether a police officer committed misconduct.

“Obviously we are not happy when the city manager doesn’t agree with us, because we have gone through such an exhaustive reading process (and) discussion about these cases,” Chairwoman Suely Saro said. “But at the same time, we can only extend ourselves as much as we can within each case.”

Saro said commissioners frequently ask for explanations when their decisions are overturned. Sometimes they get them, sometimes they don’t, she said. West and other high-ranking city officials said they strive to explain their decisions as much as possible.

West’s vetoes can range from completely reversing a CPCC decision to a more technical change such as deciding an allegation was “unfounded,” meaning the alleged event didn’t happen, versus “not sustained,” meaning the alleged conduct can’t be proven.

West and other city officials involved in the confidential deliberation process declined to explain to the Long Beach Post why they disagreed with commissioners on any specific cases, but in general terms, they said it often happens when West is privy to information the commission isn’t.

City Manager Pat West announcing Robert Luna as the city’s next chief of police in 2004. Photo by Brian Addison.

The CPCC makes its decision based on information collected by the civilian investigators it employs. They interview witnesses, gather evidence and subpoena the police department for any files it has on the incident in question.

West also has this info, but before he makes a decision, one of his deputies is briefed by the LBPD’s internal affairs division on each case.

City officials said those internal affairs briefings often include details on interviews with the officers involved and other info stored in their confidential personnel files, which are withheld from the CPCC.

“It’s the officer’s side of the story essentially,” said Deputy City Manager Kevin Jackson, who typically receives the briefing during a private meeting with a police commander. “So additional facts are shared sometimes that may shed a little more light on the situation.”

The commission, which meets monthly and deliberates any sensitive issues behind closed doors, isn’t allowed to see any of this info because the Long Beach City Attorney’s office believes it could be a violation of California’s strict privacy laws protecting police officers.

“The City Manager has ultimate disciplinary authority over members of the Long Beach Police Department and, as such, is privy to an officer’s confidential personnel records for purposes of making such employment decisions. The CPCC does not have actual disciplinary authority over a Long Beach police officer,” Deputy City Attorney Monica J. Kilaita explained.

The city does share some confidential information with the CPCC: If someone submits a complaint directly to the LBPD, it will be forwarded to the commission.

Normally, even that complaint itself would be shielded from public disclosure under the same privacy laws, but Kilaita said that document—and only that document from the personnel file—is sent to the commission so it can carry out its duty mandated by the City Charter.

The commission has operated this way since it was voted into existence in 1990, according to Kilaita.

It’s unclear how many times West has overturned the commission in his 11-plus years as city manager, but he and Jackson said 5 percent of cases sounds about right.

How the process works

The commission gets hundreds of complaints a year. In 2015, its investigators looked into 287 new cases and 49 cases not yet completed from previous years.

That year, the commission sustained 40 allegations of wrongdoing ranging from officers using profanity to improperly arresting someone or using excessive force, according to the commission’s most recent annual report.

Current numbers on this topic weren’t immediately available; the commission has not filed an annual report since the one covering 2014 and 2015.

In order to compile the number of recently overturned decisions, the Post inspected the minutes of every CPCC meeting over the past two years.

Though the commission’s deliberations are private, it publishes reports revealing how many accusations it adjudicated at each meeting and what its decision was on each.

Each complaint can have multiple accusations of misconduct against multiple officers. These are known as individual “allegations” in CPCC parlance.

For each allegation, commissioners have the option of choosing from five options: sustained, not sustained, unfounded, exonerated or “other,” which typically means the conduct at issue wasn’t technically out of policy but requires some kind of training or correction.

In addition to listing the CPCC’s decisions, these reports include the city manager’s ruling on each allegation.

The Post arrived at its total number of overturned complaints by comparing the two lists. Because of the way the information is published, it’s impossible to determine exactly which complaints were overturned or what type of misconduct they related to.

After West’s ultimate decision on each allegation, the person who complained is notified of the outcome. That notification, however, doesn’t reveal whether West overturned the commission’s decision in the process, according the commission’s executive director, Anitra Dempsey.

anita 2
Anitra Dempsey, executive director of the Citizen Police Complaint Commission. Courtesy the city of Long Beach.

To keep things manageable, there’s another way of closing out allegations, city officials said. Before commissioners ever see a complaint it must pass Dempsey’s muster.

In 2015, only 62 of the hundreds of cases made it to a full review by the commission, according to the annual report. Dempsey can decide to close a case in what’s known as a “No Further Action” finding.

Those “NFAs” are placed on the commission’s consent calendar where they’re routinely closed out without further review unless the person who made the complaint appeals for the entire commission to take a look.

‘A very, very precious thing’

The CPCC’s reviews of complaints are thorough, West and Jackson—his deputy—said.

Nevertheless, their decisions must sometimes be overturned because the commission simply doesn’t have the complete view of events, Jackson said.

“I have access to a little more information than the commission has,” Jackson said. “That’s just the way the process is designed.”

Soon, the commission may get a glimpse of that information, but only in certain cases. A new California law, SB 1421, has rolled back some of police officers’ privacy protections.

As of Jan. 1 police must disclose details from officers’ personnel files that relate to any “critical incidents,” a category that includes police shootings, deaths or use of force that causes severe injury.

The new law also requires departments to disclose information from an officer’s confidential file any time he or she is disciplined for being dishonest or sexually assaulting a member of the public.

From now on, the commission will have access in those specific cases as will any member of the public, Dempsey said.

It remains to be seen whether that will have any effect on how often the commission is overturned.

West said it’s not uncommon for any commission decisions to be overruled in Long Beach. The City Council, for instance, could opt not to take a recommendation from the Planning Commission. Or, West said, he or his deputies may meet with commissioners to talk them through areas of disagreement over a situation.

Long Beach City Hall. File photo.

West praised the CPCC as an indispensable commission for the city. Only three other cities in Los Angeles County have similar oversight bodies, he said.

“We think this is a very, very precious thing,” West said. “We think it’s a very good thing for public transparency.”

Saro, the chairwoman, said she strongly believes the CPCC’s work is important.

“It is or else I would not be on the commission,” she said.

Saro said the commission has been making an effort to educate the public about its mandate to independently investigate complaints.

Part of her pitch is just how much time commissioners put into their study and debate of each case. It can be hours, she said, because she and her fellow panelists want to do their best to get to the truth of each situation.

“The commission’s role and their input is critically valuable,” Jackson said. “If you consider the 95 percent of the time that we’re in alignment, that’s a statement in and of itself of their value.”

Jackson and Saro also emphasized that the commission has input on police department policy, not just individual complaints.

Recently, the department tweaked its booking system at the request of the commission to try to keep better track of inmates’ property, she said. And in 2016, the commission recommended the department change its policy on allowing religious headwear in its jails after a Muslim woman sued, alleging officers had forcibly removed her hijab.

“I feel like I’m able to at least help contribute to improving policies and at least helping to ensure residents’ voices are heard,” Saro said.

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