The City Council on Tuesday agreed to begin the process of placing a charter amendment on the November ballot that would reform the way citizen complaints against police are investigated.

The Citizen Police Complaint Commission was born 30 years ago in the wake of a high-profile racial discrimination episode involving Long Beach police, with the hope that it would provide more accountability for officers. But those who have served on it say it’s a toothless body in need of reform. In its current form, the CPCC only makes recommendations about officer discipline, which can be overturned or ignored by the city manager without any detailed explanation.

The City Council pledged to reform the commission through a ballot measure after public pressure that followed the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis Police Department officer in May 2020.

On Tuesday, the council received a report from a consultant hired to come up with options to meet public demand for police accountability and transparency.

The report was based on 10 months of research where the consultants reviewed CPCC meetings and investigations and compared to other models across the country. However, the outreach to the public was limited to just one in-person meeting held last year, which was marred by technical difficulties, and an online survey that received only 31 responses.

Currently, the CPCC reviews investigations that are conducted by LBPD internal affairs with some supplemental investigation by its own small staff. Commissioners then vote on whether they think the accusations of misconduct are well-founded.

Those votes, however, are private and purely advisory. The city manager has ultimate control over discipline. The city has also been criticized for underfunding the CPCC; the commission’s investigators have to rely on the LBPD’s own internal affairs files, leading to the perception that the CPCC isn’t truly independent.

While the council agreed that changes were necessary, some were concerned about the changes suggested by the consultant, including increasing the CPCC budget by over $900,000 annually to about $1.4 million to account for additional staffing needs.

“We had better not put something on the ballot that we can’t afford,” said Councilman Daryl Supernaw.

Other council members asked why the LBPD wasn’t part of the data gathering process and asked that the department be consulted about what it thinks could be changed before a proposal is returned to the council for consideration.

The consultant proposed a new auditor-monitor model or inspector general position that would no longer focus on individual investigations against police officers but would focus more on providing oversight of the internal affairs investigations, seeking to address systemic issues in the department.

The inspector general would have the ability to review all major use-of-force incidents, have authority to be on the scene of critical investigations and have authority to investigate specific allegations like those involving department leadership or when an officer shoots someone. However, the latter would require the request or approval of the city manager.

The city manager would still be the final word on any discipline handed out to officers, but one proposed change would require he or she explain such a decision to the commission.

“The big picture is that people want to have trust in their local government, want to have trust in their police department and that requires a high standard,” said Councilman Rex Richardson. “I think having someone whose only function is to look at policies and data and make sure that iron is sharpening iron when it comes to our police department is a very good thing. That builds public trust and confidence.”

Under the proposal, the commission itself would pivot away from reviewing individual cases, something that the consultant’s report said was “superficial” at times with commissioners failing to delve into the detail surrounding the facts of a case or being overly reliant on body camera footage rather than actual police policies.

Instead, commissioners would make recommendations to the inspector general for areas of concern it wanted to focus on and would work in a public relations role with the general public to try and draw more attention to its work and the process.

When this proposed model was revealed to commissioners in December, some were critical of the idea of actually stripping away power from the commissioners and handing it over to an inspector general who would be hired and fired by the City Council.

CPCC Chair Dana Buchanan said in December that this dynamic could make the inspector general “beholden” to the council, adding that it was important to make the commission as independent as possible.

While reforming the CPCC was identified as one of the goals of the city’s Framework for Reconciliation—a racial justice plan revealed in August 2020—responses from the community included in that document called for stiffer oversight, like dissolving the CPCC in favor of a community oversight committee that has subpoena and disciplinary powers.

Because the CPCC could change in a way that requires LBPD and other city employees to work in different roles, the city will have to meet and confer with union representation before a proposed charter amendment can come back to the council for a vote to place it on a future ballot.

City Manager Tom Modica said that while the city is working on a timeline that could see the council hold the first of three required public meetings as soon as June, that timeline is based on the idea that the CPCC charter amendment goes out to the voters in the November 2022 election.

If the city needs more time, it would likely have to hold a special election or wait until the 2024 election cycle to let voters decide on the future of the commission.

‘Toothless’: Residents call for changes to police oversight commission

Consultants propose giving an auditor more oversight over police complaints, investigations

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