Relations between communities in the Central Valley and police departments seem to be at a boiling point. Protests and counter protests have taken place several times this summer. The Fresno Police Department has an independent auditor who is supposed to keep an objective set of eyes on the department and help build community trust. Still, some are questioning if that position is getting the job done.
For about the last six years, Fresno’s Independent Police Auditor has been reviewing police-involved shootings and other excessive use of force complaints.
But with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the addition of police-worn body cameras and heightened scrutiny on officer behavior, some are questioning if his role should be expanded.
Richard Gomez is with the Fresno Center for Non-Violence.
He says the auditor has not had the impact promised because his authority has been too limited—for example, lacking power to issue his own subpoenas or do his own investigations.
“They need to take the chains off him and allow him to do the job and allow him to investigate. So he can do his job better. Right now he is looking over paperwork,” Gomez says.
Currently, the Auditor Rick Rasmussen reviews the cases at his home in Salt Lake City.
He does not conduct his own investigation; instead, he examines the results of FPD’s internal affairs report to determine if a shooting followed policy. He also double checks citizen complaints about mistreatment, profiling, and use of force. But again, he does not talk to the officers or witnesses in either case.
It’s not just community activists that are raising the possibility of reviewing the role of the auditor.
It’s now an issue in the Fresno mayoral race.
Fresno County Supervisor and mayoral candidate Henry Perea agrees that it may be time to reassess the role and scope of the auditor.
“In my mind, having a part-time auditor that lives in another state? That doesn’t cut it for me. How can you possibly be engaged in what is happening in this community if you are part time and live somewhere else. So I would change that dynamic immediately,” Perea says.
Perea also says that as Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer nears retirement age, voters need to consider the direction of the department because the next mayor will likely appoint his replacement.
For his part, Dyer believes the current arrangement has been helpful to the department.
He is opposed to expanding the oversight power of the police auditor, especially when it comes to granting the position subpoena power.
“We have a number of other people within the criminal justice system that have that authority. The District Attorney’s office, the grand jury, the FBI, (and) the state Attorney General’s office. And I think that is where that power should be reserved,” Dyer says.
Dyer says he thinks the auditor has been effective, putting an extra set of eyes on the department and making sure policies are up to current standards.
Fresno City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Lee Brand was on the council when the position was initially established.
He supported an auditor at the time and says he is OK with how the position has played out.
“Provides a degree of independence. And other changes like body cameras. And an aggressive effort by our new District Attorney to follow up on things. I think, at least at this point in time, I am comfortable with what we have now. The model we are using,” Brand says.
And even those highly critical of the police have given the auditor some credit for bringing hard to find information, such as racial data on police detentions, into the public and causing the police department to more closely examine its policies.
And the policies are the key part, according to auditor Rick Rasmussen.
The auditor can only determine if a certain action, say, an officer involved shooting, followed the department’s existing policy.
But he is also in position to try and convince the department to change those policies if they are outdated or do not function as intended.
“I mean, I don’t know a person that if you asked ‘hey, would you like a pay raise and more power?’ would say no to that. For what my task is and for what the community has decided their version of oversight should be, I feel that I have sufficient powers to oversee the police department and enact change,” Rasmussen says.
Rasmussen points to the addition of body worn cameras as one sign of success.
He says they were among his first recommendations and have proven to be useful in reviewing police shootings.
At least two officer-involved shootings have been captured by police body camera since they began rolling out last year, including the controversial shootings of two unarmed men Freddy Centeno and Dylan Noble.
Concerns over police oversight and behavior are clearly a part of the political conversation but whether people but whether that actually influences how people vote will be made clear in November.