Renewed Call for Independent Police Auditor

February 4, 2009 6:58:15 PM PST
The accusations against Fresno police officers of auto theft and misusing a confidential informant have renewed the call for an independent police auditor.Former mayor Alan Autry pushed the idea four times while he was in office, but it fell short in city council. Now, the faces on council have changed, and three members who fought the auditor are gone. There's a new mayor too, and Ashley Swearengin says she's in favor of a police auditor. But with a tough budget already looming, she's not focusing on it right now -- and when she does, she may find just as much resistance as the former mayor faced.

Whether they're accused of auto theft, or excessive force, Fresno police officers typically answer only to their fellow police, and in the worst-case scenario, prosecutors. But an internal affairs investigation is just that, internal, keeping the results a secret from the general public. "They don't want to have oversight," said Eleanore Bluestein, of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee. "And why not? If they're working properly, if they're honest, if they're above board, why should they fear oversight?"

Bluestein and other civic leaders joined the former mayor in a campaign for an independent police auditor, a civilian who would sit in on internal affairs deliberations and issue an independent set of findings. Even police chief Jerry Dyer said Wednesday he's in favor of an independent auditor, although he says it probably wouldn't have prevented the recent trouble. "My views haven't changed," he said. "I support the idea of an independent auditor, along long as the right person is picked for the job."

Bluestein agrees, but she says just having an independent auditor might be enough to stop some illicit activity. "I don't know if the auditor could prevent it [except] in the sense that somebody's watching," she said. "You know somebody's watching aside from your police buddies." But the police union has opposed it, and even some who support the idea understand why. "Who wants someone in your bedroom all the time, filming?" asked Dr. Eric Hickey, a criminologist from Alliant International University. "It makes them nervous to have people there questioning every move they make."

The last time the issue came up, two years ago, four council members voted against it. But Jerry Duncan and Brian Calhoun are gone, and Larry Westerlund is on a leave of absence while he serves in the military. Replacing them are Paul Caprioglio, Lee Brand, and Andreas Borgeas. And yet mayor Swearengin will still be fighting an uphill battle.

Caprioglio and Brand are basically against the idea as it's been presented. And Borgeas says someone's going to have to prove to him that the current checks and balances aren't working. "It's very much a process and I don't think it's going to happen overnight," he said. "This will take some time."

Some council members also question the cost, especially in a year of tight budgets. Former mayor Autry budgeted $180,000 for the position.

Fresno is the largest city in California without some form of civilian oversight. 11 other cities have a single auditor, an office of complaints, or a review board. In those cities, the position has cost as much as $500,000 a year, but analysts say it pays for itself by preventing future lawsuits.

List of Police Oversight Agencies

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