Crossposted on CalWatchDog

While sitting in a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Chinatown during my first visit here in more than a decade, I watched TV news reports of violent protests erupting in normally placid Anaheim after two fatal police shootings the prior weekend. It was shocking. The footage of riot-clad police tussling with and firing nonlethal weapons at protesters brought back bad memories of growing up in the Philly area in the 1960s and 1970s.

These days, Philadelphia is a surprisingly calm place, but back then, when tough-guy Mayor (and former police commissioner) Frank Rizzo ruled the roost, there were frequent confrontations. The worst incident actually came in 1985, after Rizzo had left office, when city cops dropped a bomb on a row house occupied by a black liberation group. Eleven people died, including five children. Those were dark times, but it seems Philly has learned some lessons that have eluded many California police forces.

While Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait thankfully is no Frank Rizzo, he tried his hand at tough-guy rhetoric at a news conference after Tuesday’s violence: “Vandalism, arson and other forms of violent protest will simply not be tolerated in our city. We don’t expect last night’s situation to be repeated but if it should be, the police response will be the same: swift and appropriate.”

Of course, we all are against violence, vandalism and arson. Indeed, the mother of one of the men killed by police poignantly called for calm. But I can’t agree that the police response was appropriate.

Tait, who rightly called for an outside investigation of the police shootings, over the objections of other council members, needs to work harder to live up to the promises he made when became mayor. Tait promised to foster a culture of “kindness” in the city. I know he means it, and he told me he is deeply concerned about some police actions.

Police culture

Anaheim’s police culture echoes the old Los Angeles Police Department culture that valued aggressiveness over community policing, and the city administration has shown no willingness to confront it. City police have shot six people this year, five fatally, under varying circumstances.

Sunday, an Anaheim gang officer shot and killed Joel Acevedo, 21. Police said Acevedo fired at the officer during a foot chase. A handgun was found lying between the man’s legs.

But it was the shooting July 21 of Manuel Diaz that brought people out on the streets.

Diaz, 25, reportedly ran from police, possibly from plainclothes officers. He was unarmed. According both to a lawsuit filed by his family and witnesses quoted in the media, one officer shot him near his buttocks; another officer then shot him in the head.

Police reportedly left the mortally wounded man on the ground without calling an ambulance. It’s not hard to understand the resulting outrage.

Fullerton death

After Fullerton police beat to death an unarmed homeless man last July, hundreds of people took to the streets in protest, and there were no violent encounters. Fullerton authorities just left the protesters alone. In Anaheim, the police — bolstered by reinforcements from other police agencies — cordoned off downtown streets, stood in riot gear and fired nonlethal projectiles at the crowd, including at journalists.

I covered one police shooting in Anaheim in 2008. A 20-year-old newlywed stepped outside his house with a wooden rod in his hand after hearing a ruckus nearby. Police had been chasing a robbery suspect, and when the young man came out of his house, they shot him to death. Even Police Chief John Welter, who still leads the department, said the man “was innocent of anything that the officer thought was going on in that neighborhood.” Yet, apparently, nothing has changed since then.

Powerful police unions

While Anaheim has a greater need than some other cities to re-evaluate its policing policies, problems with police use-of-force problem are endemic throughout the country and, especially, in California, where police union priorities — i.e., what’s best for officers, not the citizenry — have dominated policy decisions for decades.

Recent news reports show a significant increase in police-involved shootings in many areas of California. Police shootings account for one of every 10 shooting deaths in Los Angeles County, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Videotapes of the encounters often show that the official version of the story is at odds with what really happened. No wonder police agencies spend so much time confiscating video cameras from bystanders, something that should chill every freedom-loving American, whether on the political Left or Right.

The California Supreme Court’s Copley Press vs. San Diego decision in 2006 allows allegations of police misconduct to remain shrouded in secrecy. The public can access complaints against doctors, lawyers and other professionals but, in California, misbehavior by public employees who have the legal right to use deadly force often is off-limits to scrutiny. Because of an exemption in the public-records act, police agencies need not release most details of their reports of officer-involved shootings.

Furthermore, the Peace Officers Procedural Bill of Rights in California’s Government Code gives accused officers such strong protections that officers can rarely be disciplined or fired. The “code of silence” is alive and well in police agencies.

Most police department citizen-review panels are toothless. We should never condone violent protests, but it’s not hard to understand the recent frustration in central Anaheim. What if it were your child or your neighbor’s child.

It’s time for a real discussion about how police should deal with the community and under what conditions they should use deadly force. It’s time to bring California in line with other states and open records to greater public oversight. If Mayor Tait is serious about creating a safer and kinder city, he will need to insist on this debate, regardless of the expected pushback from the police unions.