By: Novella Coleman follow @ACLU_Novella
One day after Fresno Police Department’s fourth shooting this year, the department released body cam footage of a police killing that happened last September.
Based on what’s been reported so far, two Fresno Police officers responded to a caller alleging a man had threatened her with a gun on Sep. 3, 2015. Within five seconds of arriving on the scene, the officers drew their guns and fired 10 shots, seven of which hit Freddy Centeno. Centeno was in a coma for 23 days and died on Sep. 26.
Are Fresno police trigger-happy?
Unfortunately, Fresno Police Department shootings are far from rare. A grand jury in Fresno County reported that the department had 23 officer-involved shootings during 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the department had 11 officer-involved shootings, firing a total of 65 rounds at civilians. In 2012, the department had 10 officer-involved shootings, firing a total of 85 rounds. In 2013, the department had 11 officer-involved shootings. In 2014, the department had 8 officer-involved shootings. In 2015, the department had 9 officer-involved shootings.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Police Department reported 38 officer-involved shootings. But Los Angeles is eight times the size of Fresno. While the city of Los Angeles has a population of nearly four million people, just over 500,000 people live in Fresno. Do the math and it turns out Fresno’s officer-involved-shooting rate per 100,000 persons is almost 1.8 times that of Los Angeles.
Although Fresno residents have called for greater transparency and accountability, it’s been an uphill battle.
A culture of secrecy
In May 2009, the ACLU of Northern California prevailed against Fresno in a Public Records Act lawsuit to compel the department to release the name of the officer who was caught on video repeatedly punching a homeless man.
Even after we won the lawsuit, Fresno PD hasn’t consistently released the names of officers using force on citizens, including deadly force, although it should. And since the end of that lawsuit the California Supreme Court has held the California Public Records Act requires disclosure of the names of officers involving in shooting incidents while on duty.
In November 2009, the city hired an independent police auditor to work in its newly established Office of Independent Review. The auditor reviews officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, and complaints of bias. At first glance, that might seem like an improvement.
However, the auditor’s review process has been heavily criticized due to its reliance on the findings of the Fresno Police Department’s own Internal Affairs unit. The auditor also does not report on basic information, like the demographics, such as race, of people on whom force was used. Nor does he report on the names of the officers involved in these incidents. Other than the snippets of information the auditor chooses to report on, Fresno community members are left in the dark when it comes to all investigations and discipline of police officers, even in the case of deadly shootings.
And although the auditor can make recommendations, they are non-binding, thus limiting the potential for accountability.
Some community members remain skeptical of the auditor’s ability to effectively monitor the Fresno Police Department since he lives in Utah and works for Fresno on a part-time basis.
Unfortunately, Fresno’s culture of secrecy is protected by state law.
On information about police, California is one of the most secretive states in the nation. More than 25 states have greater public access to information about police records. 10 states make records available whether or not the department finds that the officer(s) was guilty of misconduct.
A step in the right direction
Senate Bill 1286, introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would make California police more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve.
In all of this, what rings true is the undeniable fact that communities across the state and country are weary of how police departments handle and investigate officer-involved shootings and other police misconduct. Hiding information about police misconduct and wrongdoing behind a wall of secrecy hurts public trust in law enforcement, particularly within communities that bear the brunt of police harassment and brutality.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that only 30 percent of all Americans believe law enforcement agencies are doing a good or excellent job of holding officers accountable for misconduct and that number drops to a mere 10 percent when the same question is asked of Black Americans specifically. Similarly, a separate poll found that 79% of California voters believed the public should have access to information connected to investigations into police misconduct.
A need for transparency
During the press conference last Thursday, Fresno Police Chief Dyer said the department’s Internal Affairs investigation and the investigation conducted by the city’s Office of Independent Review both found that the officers who shot Freddy Centeno had acted within their power to do so. He even read an excerpt to reporters. But that’s all we’ll ever get – as it stands, the department’s report will never see the light of day.
We’ve seen far too many videos of people killed by the police to continue trusting police agencies to judge those killings in secret.
The police have the unique power to take a life based on a split-second decision. The taxpaying public deserves to know how that power is being used – and abused. SB 1286 is long overdue in Fresno and the rest of the state.
Novella Coleman is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.