by Dave Waddell
The four Chico City Council candidates speaking at a forum Monday night agreed on the need for fundamental change at Chico PD, including increased crisis intervention training, greater citizen oversight, and more cops out walking and on bicycles.
Those candidates – Alex Brown, Scott Huber, Rich Ober and Ken Rensink – for two hours answered questions from Concerned Citizens for Justice (CC4J), which sponsored the forum, as well as from members of an audience that filled a meeting room at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library.
Three other City Council candidates declined the group’s invitation to attend, including incumbent Andrew Coolidge and candidates Kasey Reynolds and Matt Gallaway. Event organizers said they were unable to contact candidate Jon Scott. Coolidge and Gallaway told organizers they were previously scheduled the night of the forum, while Reynolds responded to her invitation by accusing CC4J of being biased against the police.
Reynolds reiterated that position in a post on her Facebook campaign page early Tuesday, calling the forum a “distraction”: “I stand by my decision not to participate in this forum. As I said before, I disagree with this group’s assertions that the Chico Police Department lacks accountability and transparency. To me, this election is about crime and the criminal vagrancy issues plaguing our city. This forum is a distraction from the issues Chico voters care most about. I am not going to help further this attempt to create an artificial narrative right before the election.”
Margaret Swick, a leader of CC4J, accused the Chico Enterprise-Record in a letter to the editor published today of “unethical journalism” for claiming the group’s involvement in an orchestrated disruption at the Sept. 4 City Council meeting.
“We feel that both (Reynolds’ press statements) and (E-R Editor) David Little’s editorial were very distorted, and we were frightened” that they could cast doubt on Concerned Citizens for Justice’s credibility, said Emily Alma, a leader of the group, after the forum. “We were also fearful that it might attract a violent segment that would be disruptive.”
Instead, the forum was orderly, wide-ranging in topics and informative, with questions and answers “that had depth and meaning,” Alma said.
The Enterprise-Record did not send a reporter to the event, but journalists from ChicoSol.org, The Orion, the Chico News & Review, and Action News Now did provide coverage.
“The strong showing for the other media was, to us, a confirmation of our legitimacy,” Alma said. “And the packed house. And the seriousness of purpose of the questions.”
The election for three seats on the council will be Nov. 6.
The conservative Coolidge recently initiated a highly controversial effort by the current council to revive the city’s so-called Sit and Lie Ordinance aimed at keeping clear the city’s sidewalks adjacent to businesses. Candidates addressing the issue Monday called the ordinance not only wasteful of precious police resources but counterproductive.
Huber reported going on a Chico PD ride-along in which a sergeant basically explained a neighbor’s complaint to some homeless people and requested that they move along, which they did.
“That sort of treatment of the homeless is reasonable and fair,” Huber said.
While Chico PD’s approach has been “pretty restrained” in recent years, “now they are being pushed by people with extreme views to get tougher with the homeless, and I think that’s the wrong approach,” Huber said.
Huber also said that elections matter because police “take their cues” from the City Council in their treatment of street people.
Also highly critical of the Sit and Lie Ordinance was Ober, who mentioned a study by Chico State professors that reported the Police Department spending $800,000 to enforce Sit and Lie during the time it was city law in 2014 and 2015. The ordinance expired on the first day of 2016. Ober noted that the Torres Community Shelter, for which he has been board chair, can fully fund its operations for an entire year for about $800,000.
Brown, while calling Chico PD “understaffed and overburdened,” said laws such as Sit and Lie that “criminalize homelessness … don’t do honor” to the police’s mission of apprehending criminals.
All four candidates favored the creation of a citizen board or commission to review police issues, as well as for officers to do less driving around in intimidating police cruisers and more time on foot and bikes interacting with community members.
Particularly outspoken about body-camera usage was Rensink, who said a camera should be worn by every officer from the minute he or she goes on duty until the shift ends. Chico police began wearing cameras a couple of weeks after two officers shot Desmond Phillips, a 25-year-old black man in mental crisis, in his living room in March 2017. More recently, two Butte County sheriff’s deputies failed to turn on their body cameras before shooting 13 times and killing Myra Micalizio, 56, of Palermo last April. Like Phillips, Micalizio was in mental crisis when killed.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Rensink said. “A videotape is worth a million.”
Huber and Ober called for the adoption of Chico PD policies that provide for release of body-camera footage in a timely manner. In Butte County, District Attorney Mike Ramsey controls the release of police film and generally withholds it until all criminal cases are resolved.
Ramsey has still not allowed the public to see film of the August 2017 stranglehold that a former Chico police sergeant allegedly put on a restrained suspect. Ex-Sgt. Scott Ruppell in due back in court next month on a misdemeanor assault charge.
While all four candidates favored de-militarizing the Police Department, Rensink was most specific about what type of hardware Chico PD should be allowed to obtain as surplus from the military: communications, yes; vehicles, maybe; weaponry, never.
Brown emphasized the need for de-escalation training because “someone in crisis cannot respond to police … in the manner of someone who is not in crisis.” She called for greater transparency and public discussion of police issues because, “being responsive to mistakes is what really moves a community forward.”
In closing statements, Brown lauded how the forum was run, including posing questions from community members.
Rensink stressed the need for dialogue to work through community-police relations issues. “I’m not a Republican; I’m not a Democrat,” he said. “I don’t care who gets the credit.”
Ober stressed his leadership in a group called Depolarize Chico and said he would attempt to bridge community divides and counter those with entrenched positions that “model a kind of behavior that echoes what’s going on on the national level.”
Huber said he entered the race for City Council largely in concern over the shooting deaths last year of Desmond Phillips and Tyler Rushing involving Chico officers. He called Chico police “severely undertrained” in crisis intervention.
Better training, Huber said, “could have prevented what happened to those two boys.”
Dave Waddell is ChicoSol news director.