Should Riverside County have a police review commission?

Riverside County’s Democratic Party is calling for a police review commission “with real community oversight” as it criticized Sheriff Chad Bianco’s plan to form a community review panel following recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

The party proposed the commission in a June 11 statement responding to the Board of Supervisors’ passage of a resolution condemning George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota, police.

The death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, sparked nationwide protests and fueled calls to end systemic racism and reform policing. To the dismay of Black Lives Matter activists, the board failed to vote on a proposal from Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to review Riverside County Sheriff’s Department procedures and bolster community outreach.

During that meeting, Bianco, an elected official with independent authority to run his department, resisted calls to review department policies, saying they’ve already been overhauled and are publicly available. He suggested forming a community review panel of citizens and said he’d take the board’s suggestions for members as long as they are not lawyers or politicians.

That doesn’t satisfy county Democrats.

“(Bianco) is granting himself total authority on who qualifies as an acceptable ‘community member,’ and what qualifies as ‘legitimate concerns,’ after failing to improve police relations in our communities,” the party’s statement read.

“This proposal is a status-quo institutional approach that shows no recognition or comprehension of the exasperation in the many voices raised in protest throughout (the) County, State, and Country. This approach does not allow for more than a few chosen Black and Brown Leaders to raise real world concerns, and further fuels division between law enforcement and communities of color.”

In an email Thursday, July 2, sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Albert Martinez said: “We do have a plan and it will be announced soon.”

It was not clear if he was referring to the community review panel.

Supervisors, the Democrats’ statement read, need to appoint a police review commission “with real community oversight for all jurisdictions in the County  in (the same) spirit of inclusion and respect the Supervisors expressed for the late George Floyd. We have had too many George Floyds. There will be no change without real, inclusive action. The time to act is now.”

In a telephone interview, Tisa Rodriguez, county Democratic Party chair, said a proposed commission is envisioned as having oversight over law enforcement in the county, whether it’s the Sheriff’s Department or a non-sheriff’s agency. The sheriff serves most cities through contracts, but other cities, such as Riverside and Corona, have their own police departments.

The commission would involve everyday people and would look at officer-involved shootings and the use of force, Rodriguez said.

Bill Young, president of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the union representing sheriff’s deputies, opposes such a commission.

“The belief that ‘civilian oversight commissions’ are the great elixir to law enforcement oversight is greatly misplaced,” he said in an emailed statement. “These commissions are often filled with political appointees who have little prior knowledge of the law enforcement work, even though they are empowered to second guess the actions of law enforcement.”

Sheriff’s detectives, who are much more familiar with department policies and training, and the district attorney’s office, which is familiar with use-of-force law, are better prepared to investigate deputies’ use of force, Young argued, and the sheriff can determine whether a deputy’s use of force violated policy or if that policy needs to be changed.

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“The fundamental way residents of this great Country determine the direction of their public agencies, including the Office of the Sheriff, is at the ballot box,” Young said. “ … That is real oversight and accountability!”

The Democrats’ proposal is separate from a request by county Black community leaders to establish a task force to look at how systemic racism has led to public health disparities hurting African Americans. Black leaders also want county supervisors to declare racism to be a public health crisis.

The city of Riverside has a Community Police Review Commission to conduct independent investigations of citizen complaints and officer-involved shootings and recommend changes to policies in its department. The panel formed after the 1998 killing of Tyisha Miller, a Black woman, by Riverside police.

In a telephone interview, Perez, the county board’s only Latino supervisor, said he welcomes the idea of a police review commission but in the meantime, is trying to coordinate listening sessions “so that if we’re able to put together such a commission, that it really comes from the ground up.”

A commission or task force “that looks at institutional racism as a whole,” Perez said, could look not only at policing, but public health, housing, social welfare, access to education and other issues.

Reached via email Wednesday, Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said he wasn’t aware of the Democrats’ proposal.

“I am however aware of the Sheriff moving forward with his original plan to establish a citizen advisory committee and I am supportive of that effort,” Jeffries said, adding he’s recommended three citizens from his district — one from Woodcrest, one from Good Hope, one from Lake Elsinore — to join Bianco’s panel.