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ACLU, CPR talk SWAT, civilian police review

ACLU, CPR talk SWAT, civilian police review

By Karla Rivas

Eye Correspondent

4/1/08 Arcata Eye

ARCATA – After supporting a proposed countywide Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team to operate in Arcata and throughout Humboldt County, Arcata Police Chief Randy Mendosa said the plan never got kicked off.

“There has been some discussion in the past among some local municipalities about forming a regional team, but it never got off the ground,” Mendosa said.

However, Charles Douglas, board secretary of the Redwood Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that there has been no announcement that plans to create a multi-agency SWAT Team are canceled.

Last Thursday, the Redwood ACLU and the Coalition for Police Review (CPR) met at the Arcata Branch Library to discuss the possibility of an Arcata-based SWAT Team. About a dozen individuals attended the two-hour gathering.

Among concerns aired at the meeting were accountability, the quality of training and police protocol. Other issues included the possible rise of police brutality due to the paramilitary nature of a SWAT Team and the effects it can have on the community.

Christina Allbright, attorney and chair of the Redwood Chapter, discussed the pros and cons of having a SWAT Team in Arcata.

Allbright said that having a county-wide SWAT Team has distinct advantages over individual agencies. One advantage is that the code of silence among officers would be diminished due to the fact that there would be different agencies with different perspectives. Another advantage, according to Allbright, to a multi-agency SWAT Team is that the standards would be more comprehensive. “Instead of having one chief or one city council deciding what the policies are going to be, it would be a number of different people,” Allbright said.

On the other hand, “the cons appear to be the accountability because it would be a multi-agency command, then what agency would be accountable?” Allbright asked.

Greg Allen, attorney and Boardmember of ACLU and CPR, said that SWAT Teams usually operate at night, which makes it harder to see in order to identify an individual. “How can you tell which officer it was, when they’re wearing uniforms that are essentially featureless?” he said.

Other concerns include long-term trauma due to unannounced raids into homes, racial profiling, and the use of unnecessary lethal force.

Allbright said she has often spoken to people who have been traumatized and humiliated by the county Drug Task Force during police raids. These people, Allbright said, will not file a complaint.

“It’s not just dumping drawers – it is staging,” Allbright said. “It is taking intimate objects the family may have in their bedroom and placing them on the bed.”

Due to the trauma, Allbright said that these people will not file a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office or with any of the agencies involved with DTF. “What they do is tell people like me, and then I have to repeat the stories so that people see that law enforcement does these kinds of things,” she said.

Such behavior can only be stopped by having an independent body that would document complaints, Allbright said. “That way people fell there’s somewhere they can go, besides the law enforcement,” she said.

Allen said that a paramilitary police force should have civilian control. “It makes no sense at all why there should be any group of government workers that don’t answer to anybody but themselves.”

Although members of the Redwood Chapter hope to see an independent review board, City Councilmember Paul Pitino said that the City of Arcata, as a General Law city in the state of California, is not allowed to have a police review commission, which would have access to personnel records, and can only allow an advisory commission.

“Other cities that are charter type cities can have commissions related to police review,” Pitino said.

The California Penal Code and Government Code have sections that require police officer records and personal matters to remain confidential, Mendosa said. “It is also important to point out that a small city like Arcata already has significant systems of accountability in place for its police department,” Mendosa said.

Systems of accountability include the city manager, the City Council which serves as the Arcata Police Personnel Board, the Grand Jury for complaints alleging police misconduct and the District Attorney or the Attorney General who also take complaints.

Mendosa maintained that APD officers are held to perform at the highest levels of integrity, honesty and professionalism. “We have an extremely strong supervisory and management component that is constantly in place,” Mendosa said. “Officers are highly accountable for their actions and must comply with department policy and the law.”

At the moment Arcata is too small to meet the standards required by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

However, Mendosa still thinks that Arcata needs a SWAT Team for urgent life-and-death situations.

“Humboldt County is very isolated from the rest of the state resources,” Mendosa said. “When I see cities, not unlike Arcata, in other areas where violent shootings take place, I do worry that it could happen to our community some day.”

The multi-agency SWAT team would be a part of the county’s Sheriff’s Office if there is one and if one is necessary, Pitino said.

“The Eureka SWAT team, I understand is disbanded, so I guess we need to rethink the necessity of having one, who would be in charge, and who would review it,” Pitino said.