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Petaluma set to introduce greater police oversight

Petaluma joins Santa Rosa and Sebastopol in instituting new oversight processes since Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in the summer of 2020.|

Petaluma will become the third Sonoma County city to expand police oversight in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, adopting an independent auditor model following recommendations from the city’s committee on race relations and policing.

In a unanimous vote at Monday night’s meeting, the City Council agreed on a recommendation for a hybrid police oversight model, and that the city will need an outside adviser who will map the establishment of relationships between the Petaluma Police Department, city staff and the community. City officials estimate it will take a year to implement the new oversight processes.

“This is another step down the road,” said Mayor Teresa Barrett in regards to where the city is progressing on its efforts for more diversity and accountability. “It’s going to take a lot of steps, but we’re going to get there.”

The move came after the city’s 28-member ad hoc community advisory committee on race relations and policing, which was established last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, sought greater accountability and procedural changes in the city’s public safety sector. The resident-led group charged with helping Petaluma become a more inclusive and welcoming community began meeting in April 2021.

Committee member Zahyra Garcia, who represents local activist group Indivisible Petaluma, said the City Council’s vote on Monday is a “foot in the door” toward police accountability, but there’s more work to do.

“We could go further,” Garcia said in a Wednesday afternoon text message.

Petaluma is the latest Sonoma County city to move in this direction, after Santa Rosa hired an independent police auditor in November 2021. In July 2021, Sebastopol officials approved the use of the app “Open Policing” to allow residents to openly review their experiences with officers. Additionally, the countywide Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach was established in 2015 by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to strengthen the relationship between residents and the Sheriff’s Department.

During its meeting Monday, the City Council mulled four existing oversight models: a review-focused model, auditor/monitor-focused model, investigation-focused model, or a Petaluma city staff-recommended hybrid combination of two or more of those. In the end, council members agreed a hybrid model would create the most balance.

Driven by resident-submitted complaints, review-focused models, like that employed by Sonoma County’s IOLERO, are currently the most common form of civilian oversight used in the U.S.

In auditor/monitor-focused systems, an auditor reviews police practices and reports to a higher reviewing authority regarding patterns in police department investigations, findings and discipline.

Investigation-based systems, the second most commonly used and the most costly, employ independent investigations into reported police misconduct. Investigative systems usually result in greater access to police records than review-based systems, according to the staff report.

While the City Council expressed overall support for an independent auditor, residents expressed concern over potential bias in the hiring process. City Manager Peggy Flynn, who supervises the police chief and has direct access to police misconduct reports, would be responsible for bringing on the auditor, prompting questions about whether the auditor would be hired on a neutral basis.

Vice Mayor Dennis Pocekay called for the hiring of an auditor who would reflect fair oversight practices.

“It has to be someone who is very knowledgeable about police work and police training and standards,” Poecekay said in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview. “It has to be someone who is very familiar with the law, in relation to more recent legislation that has brought more police work out into the public arena. And it has to be someone who is not biased.”

City Attorney Eric Danly said the City Charter requires the hiring responsibility to remain in the hands of the City Manager.

Police Chief Ken Savano, who has approached the notion of expanded oversight with some reservation, showed support for the City Council’s decision during the meeting Monday.

Other next steps in the city’s commitment to bettering race relations and policing include achieving accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which is described as the “gold standard” in public safety. Those that have become accredited through CALEA are considered leaders in police practices, policies and procedures. While 19 of California’s agencies have achieved the accreditation, none have done so in Sonoma County thus far.

City staff estimate the cost for an independent police auditor would reach $25,000 annually, while costs for accreditation through CALEA are $12,000 annually. A civilian manager in the Police Department to oversee accreditation would be covered by the city’s Measure U budget.

The City Council also directed city staff to continue research on the potential for a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant that council members would consider approving sometime in the future. The consultant would determine whether or not the city will need a DEI Commission and whether an in-house equity officer position is needed as well. That position, which would allow for other contracted specialists to provide training and policy development, would entail the fully-benefited staffing costs of $200,000 to $300,000.

If a DEI Commission were to be created, the City Council would consider eliminating or consolidating at least five of its existing commissions, committees and boards to make way for the proper staff resources.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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