Editorial: To the mayor and City Council: Unlock the handcuffs on police reform

The murder of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked the loudest cries for racial justice since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Those who marched in mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests demanded an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

Their calls for sweeping change to address racial injustice in the criminal justice system and more broadly in American society must be heard in the corridors of power from city halls to state legislatures to the nation’s capital.

Long Beach, a city with a population larger than Minneapolis, has its own disturbing history of police brutality and excessive use of force, particularly against Black citizens.

Three decades ago, Long Beach voters established a Citizen Police Complaint Commission to “investigate allegations of police misconduct with emphasis on excessive force, false arrest, and complaints with racial or sexual overtones.”

But a four-month investigative project published by the Long Beach Post describes in disturbing detail how fundamental flaws in the commission’s structure have made it all but impossible for the commission to fulfill its mission.

The Post story describes in depth how the commission’s work over the past 30 years has been handcuffed by:

⦁ The lack of a dedicated budget to hire staff and skilled investigators.

⦁ A crushing workload that led to the dismissal of thousands of complaints of alleged police misconduct.

⦁ An inability to compel testimony by police officers and obtain access to official documents.

⦁ The city manager’s power to reject commission recommendations for discipline of police officers.

Last year alone, the commission “sustained” 52 accusations of police misconduct ranging from excessive force to discourtesy. The city manager failed to respond to all but five of them.

Over the past four years, a recent city report showed the city manager sustained just 28 findings of misconduct out of 112 recommended by the commission.

The city has spent more than $31.4 million since 2014 to settle cases involving police use of excessive force, including officer-involved shootings. The largest settlement was for $4.9 million. Six others cost more than $2 million each.

These findings raise important questions about whether the time has come to scrap the existing Commission and start over.

One does not have to look far to find examples of what an effective citizen police oversight commission might look like.

Los Angeles County has a Civilian Oversight Commission for the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department. There is also an independent inspector general with the power to subpoena records, interview deputies, and issue reports about the result of its investigations.

Voters in San Diego will decide on Tuesday whether to establish a Commission on Police Practices to provide civilian oversight of the police department.  If Measure B passes, San Diego’s existing Community Review Board will be replaced by the commission with its own budget, staff, subpoena power and outside legal counsel.

The Long Beach Citizen Police Complaint Commission is broken. Long Beach residents deserve a functional citizen oversight body capable of addressing complaints about police misconduct, use of excessive force, and systemic racism.

The question facing this city is how that goal can best be achieved. We cannot do what we have always done and expect different results. Establishing a well-funded, independent, and effective police oversight commission is the necessary next step towards the goals of achieving racial justice, accountability, and transparency in the city of Long Beach.

The City Council and Mayor Robert Garcia must make these changes now. Long Beach cannot wait for a consultant report or a citizen initiative. We have been waiting for 30 years. The Long Beach Citizen Police Complaint Commission must reform now because it is the right thing to do.

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