LBPD headquarters. File photo.

Long Beach voters will be asked to decide on changes to the Citizens Police Complaint Commission this November, but whether a proposed charter amendment will strengthen police oversight or weaken it is up for debate.

The Long Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to place a slate of charter amendments on the November ballot, including two that would permanently align LBUSD and city elections with the state’s schedule and another that would merge the city’s gas and water departments.

However, overhauling the CPCC, formed more than three decades ago, was the most controversial. Leaders began discussing changes to the commission in the wake of  civil unrest after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

Critics say the existing model of the 11-member commission is flawed because it lacks resources for investigators and enforcement power, with final disciplinary decisions resting with the city manager. The new model that is proposed would create a seven-member commission with no subpoena or enforcement power; instead a paid auditor/monitor could review internal police investigations of complaints to ensure they are being investigated properly by the department itself, and look into other issues at the commission’s discretion.

The investigations into how high profile police complaints are handled would come only at the request of the city manager.

Councilmember Al Austin, who served on the CPCC before being elected to council, sought during Tuesday’s deliberations to instead preserve the existing commission and bolster its ranks of investigators with an additional $900,000 in funding.

Austin said that the proposed charter amendment was flawed, but the likelihood of voters approving it is high because police oversight is something that most people would support. Austin said he wanted to get something done but he wanted it “to be done right” before putting it before voters.

“We should not put something on the ballot just to say we did it,” Austin said.

Austin’s motion failed to get the five votes required to stop the ballot measure from moving forward. The council instead moved forward with placing the issue on the ballot with considerations of investing more funding in the CPCC in the interim.

Because changing the CPCC would require amending the city charter, the next possible time it could be sent to voters is the 2024 election cycle. City rules dictate that charter amendments can only be put on general election ballots and city elections are typically held in even years.

Tuesday’s vote came just days before a deadline for the council to send potential ballot measures to the county for consideration in the upcoming election.

Under the new proposed CPCC model, commissioners would no longer be able to subpoena records or hear evidence of cases and vote on recommendations for officer discipline. They would serve primarily as a public outreach body and make suggestions to the auditor on what trends they should look at within the department.

While the auditor would have the ability to investigate some cases, like those involving great bodily harm or complaints against high-ranking officials within the department, they would only have that authority if the city manager requests that they look into those complaints.

The auditor would have access to internal police files, something investigators don’t currently have access to, but their job would be mostly focused on systemic practices of the department, suggesting changes and issuing annual reports on department trends.

The model was proposed by a city-hired consultant that began its public outreach in 2021, but only held two public meetings before finalizing its recommendations to the council.

While city officials have said it’s a stronger model with more power, members of the public and former CPCC commissioners said it would effectively remove the few teeth that the current model has.

As in the current model, the city manager would also retain the final say in any officer discipline, something that has left some disillusioned with both the CPCC and the proposed replacement.

“It’s still up to the city manager’s discretion and that’s where the problem lies,” said Richard Lindemann, a former CPCC commissioner, speaking about the gatekeeper role the city manager could play in future investigations.

Thomas Beck, the lawyer who represented Don Jackson, an off-duty police officer who had his head shoved into a glass window by LBPD officers in 1989 while being secretly recorded, said the proposal was a “mammoth waste of time.”

Jackson’s case was the flashpoint for community activists to push for the CPCC’s creation, but Beck says its proposed replacement could leave out important elements currently investigated by the CPCC.

Racial profiling and other alleged unprofessional conduct by officers that doesn’t cause great bodily injury, like Jackson’s case, could more easily be overlooked with the auditor relying on police internal investigations rather than independent parallel investigations of complaints.

“The current commission sucks, but what the future holds is even more inept,” Beck said.

That the current commission is not functioning as intended was not the center of disagreement, but whether the proposed ballot measure was the appropriate fix. Mayor Robert Garcia said the public said it wants reform and the alternative is to continue on with the current CPCC for the next few years.

“At the end of the day the idea of a reformed commission is to provide more police accountability,” Garcia said.  “The current system we have is not providing the level of oversight that I believe this moment and the public has demanded.”

The city is looking for people to write ballot arguments for the four proposed amendments that will be on ballots in November. People interested can submit an application on the City Clerk’s website by 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 11.

Editors note: The story has been updated with the correct deadline for turning in applications to be a ballot argument writer. The original version of this story listed it as Aug. 10. 

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