High marks, low attendance
Council’s Public Safety Committee cancels 44 meetings in three years but still meets after most major incidents
By André Coleman 12/17/2013
As some Pasadena residents call for a citizen’s board to oversee the activities of the city Police Department, City Council members maintain that a four-member council committee serves that function and a separate board is unnecessary.
However, the Pasadena Weekly has learned that the council committee canceled 44 of its scheduled meetings over the past three years, although the group did meet soon after nearly every major incident involving the Fire and Police departments, except one — the officer-involved shooting death of 19-year-old Kendrec McDade in late March 2012.
The officers involved in that incident have been cleared by the District Attorney’s Office and Pasadena police, but the case remains the subject of investigation by both the FBI and the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review. It is also at the heart of two separate federal lawsuits filed against the city and the department by McDade’s parents.
Calls for more civilian oversight of law enforcement have since spread to the county level, with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas expressing his desire to see a civilian review board oversee the Sheriff’s Department. The call came following last week’s indictment of 18 mostly low-level deputies implicated in the ongoing federal investigation of violence allegedly perpetrated by deputies against inmates in county jails.
In Pasadena, the council’s Public Safety Committee canceled 16 of 26 scheduled meetings in 2010 and another 16 of 26 meetings in 2011. The panel, comprised of four council members, canceled 12 meetings in 2012, according to attendance records obtained by the Weekly. The committee met 12 times in 2013, with no cancellations.
Most of the cancellations were from November 2011 to June 2012, when Councilman Steve Madison served as chair.
Madison, who works as an attorney in Los Angeles, did not return calls seeking comment on this story.
Currently, the committee, now chaired by Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, includes Madison and Council members Gene Masuda and John Kennedy.
Kennedy, who was elected to the council’s District 3 in March, has been the lone voice on the council pushing for a study of a civilian oversight board for Pasadena police. So far, those efforts have been shot down by both the council and other Public Safety Committee members, including Madison, a vocal opponent of the idea.
“If the numbers are correct that 44 meetings of the committee were canceled in that time period, then they could not be the entity that the community can have confidence in as it relates to the Fire and Police departments,” Kennedy told the Weekly. “I need to know more, because it would be disingenuous of anyone to claim that during that time period the committee was providing requisite oversight.”
Steve Mermell, assistant city manager and staff liaison to the committee, said the numbers may not be as bad as they appear.
“For a while, we were scheduling two meetings a month, just to ensure we would have one a month,” Mermell told the newspaper. “We were scheduling two meetings knowing that if we met once we would cancel the other. We are back to the old practice of scheduling one a month.”
Last year, according to the documents provided by the City Clerk’s Office, the committee canceled meetings in January and February. The council committee held no meetings in the wake of the officer-involved shooting of McDade on March 24, 2012, until May 7. That year the committee canceled 16 meetings.
McDade was shot and killed by two Pasadena police officers following a brief pursuit from a taco stand on Orange Grove Boulevard and Summit Avenue to Sunset Avenue and Orange Grove Boulevard. Police believed McDade was armed due to a 911 caller’s claims that he had been robbed by two African-American men with guns. McDade was African American. Police later discovered that McDade was unarmed. The shooting sparked calls for civilian oversight of the department.
Other calls for more civilian oversight have come from a handful of critics responding to several recent internal investigations against Officers Keith Gomez, William Broughamer and Kevin Okamoto. In August, those three officers were cleared of allegations that they either individually or together attempted to influence witness testimony, inappropriately used an informant and failed to provide a copy of a search warrant when asked. Other claims against the officers included harassment, unlawful arrest, submission of a misleading police report and inappropriate recording a jailhouse conversation.
In Los Angeles, Ridley-Thomas called for civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department when 16 of 18 deputies were arrested last week after being indicted by a federal grand jury. The indictments stem from four federal investigations into Sheriff Lee Baca’s department, including one that alleges deputies hid an FBI informant and told federal authorities the inmate had been released from a county jail facility.
“At this point in time, the Sheriff’s Department is essentially left to oversee itself, which is a recipe for disaster,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Several area residents, including former Altadena Town Councilman and community activist Steve Lamb, planned to support the supervisor’s call for civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, which polices unincorporated Altadena.
Kennedy said he hoped the same type of behavior was not a problem in Pasadena.
“Hopefully, the behaviors of some in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department are exclusive to that organization,” Kennedy said. “What I am hoping for here in the city of Pasadena is to simply have a study commissioned.”
Robinson told the Weekly that she still does not support civilian oversight, but does support a civilian advisory committee, which she said would work directly with Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez with regard to high-level incidents.
“In order to lessen the impact between the flow of information about officer-involved shootings and other public safety issues, perhaps there is a need for some type of citizen advisory committee, for lack of a better term,” Robinson said. “They would work directly with the Police Department and the Public Safety Committee. I don’t know what that looks like and what they are charged with. In my view, that is not the same as civilian oversight.”
“What ultimately comes to Public Safety are the results of the investigations from various groups,” Mermell explained. “Of course, we never want to cancel meetings. We may have been able to provide some initial information immediately after the McDade incident, but it takes time to get the results when there are internal reviews and probes.”
After the McDade shooting incident, the committee held regular meetings after every other major public safety issue, which included a meeting in early January following two tragedies that occurred last Christmas, one a drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of Victor McClinton, 42, who was caught in the crossfire in front of his home on Newport Avenue. The council was also briefed on a high-speed pursuit which resulted in the death of Tracey Ong Tan, 25, and Kendrick Ng, 11 of Daly City.
Darrell Lee Williams and his girlfriend Brittany Washington, 23, have been charged with two counts of murder and three counts of assault with a deadly weapon — an automobile — in connection with that incident. Williams also faces and additional felony charge of gun possession. The two are scheduled to stand trial in Pasadena on Jan. 13.
Robinson, who has been a member of the committee since her election in 2008, told the Weekly that despite the canceled meetings, the panel has never failed to conduct the proper oversight on public safety issues.
“In general, the Public Safety Committee has a regular schedule of meetings,” Robinson said. “But, depending on the issue, the chief [of police] will come and brief council and the committee and, in many cases, the council member who represents the area where an incident occurs is also briefed. There has not been a time when the chief has not come to the council or the first Public Safety meeting following an incident to give us an update and to brief us on an issue.”
“I never got the reason why they were canceled,” Masuda said. “Sometimes there was nothing on the agenda and sometimes stuff was being handled by the council, and if you don’t have a quorum you can’t have the meeting.”