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Policy still bars council from information access

Three years after a Helix High School incident during which a Black student was repeatedly slammed to the ground by a white La Mesa Police officer, one question about independent investigations continues to nag at City Council: can the Community Police Oversight Board that is subsidiary to City Council access investigation details that elected officials cannot see?

City Council member Bill Baber, who was in office at the time of the Helix High School incident and subsequent investigation, pushed the point during a Nov. 23 City Council meeting.

“The mayor and I asked a series of questions when the Helix investigation was going on and were told we can’t have that answer. How can the auditor review those files under our authority if we didn’t have that authority?”

Essentially, the council has created a situation in which they cannot view investigation details because they delegated that investigative power to an outside group, Baber said.

The structure behind the Helix High School investigation is not unlike a more recent outside investigation that took place after La Mesa Police Officer Matthew Dages roughly arrested a Black man, Amaurie Johnson for allegedly smoking near the Grossmont Trolley station.

Both cases received widespread media attention, with the city council called on by the public to hastily resolve the situations by immediately firing the officers involved in each case.

However, the city council does not have that power and both incidents were reviewed by independent police auditors represented by external legal counsel.

Details from both cases remain withheld from city council members and others who legally do not have access to personnel files.

Baber, who is also an attorney, maintains a ‘Meet and Confer” approach with key players would be wiser, and would prefer any future situations involving an external investigation to include the oversight board, city council represented by the La Mesa City Manager, the police chief and someone with power of attorney able to act on behalf of the plaintiff all seated at the same table.

“If we treat situations like this as a Meet and Confer with the POA so they can participate in a system that involves officers, if the POA is at the table, you’ll have a much better system,” Baber said.

Although that type of discussion might take some time, Baber said, the approach serves as a mechanism to put aside immediate and potentially vengeful decisions and might ultimately allow for a more powerful discussion and, ideally, a more just outcome with lasting changes in place that might prevent similar future incidents.

“The time between an incident and outrage is very short” but that fast demand for what might appear to be justice does not correlate to a legal system that relies upon due process, Baber said.

Having an independent auditor essentially creates a system that could lead to a situation in which “power could easily be abused,” Baber said.

Attorney Dale Larson, who represents the CPOB, said he was not involved in the Helix investigation and has no authority to change who can access files associated with that investigation.

Generally, Larson said, City Council cannot view some documents, including personnel records, because it would require disclosing that information publicly under the Brown Act, thus publicly sharing private documents.

Larson also said City Council would hypothetically need reason to see details of any outside investigations in a closed session.

Newly-installed City Council Member Laura Lothian asked if City Council has any recourse if they do not like how the current CPOB ordinance is functioning. Larson said they do and can change how the ordinance is written at any time.

Larson also said the group will be releasing a report in February   specific to “a number of police related policies” as well as regular reports every six months.

Vice Mayor Jack Shu said the oversight board itself needs time to develop and hopes City Council will give them the time they need.

Policy still bars council from information access

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Source: East County Californian

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