Community Trust Deferred in Mayor's Budget

Stephen Downing

On July 11 a little-noticed agenda item among 18 others on the city council’s consent calendar was passed without a single councilmember asking for discussion.

The council’s unanimous yes vote cost taxpayers $2.477 million.

In his written recommendation to the council supporting the yes vote, the city attorney stated, “After a jury trial and extensive post-trial negotiations, the parties reached a tentative settlement of both actions: (1) $930,500 for the Vazquez matter, including attorney fees and costs; and, (2) $1,546,500 for the Contreras matter, including attorney’s fees and costs.”

The jury trial referenced by the city attorney involved a federal lawsuit surrounding an incident that began when Miguel Vasquez, in the company of his cousin, Miguel Contreras, arrived home one evening.  Contreras went to his car. Vasquez approached his apartment building and was told by a neighbor that the police were detaining a friend. 

According to witnesses, independent video evidence and court documents, Vasquez approached to see LBPD Sgt. David Faris (now lieutenant) standing over his friends – who had been ordered to their knees on the sidewalk. He asked what was going on. Sgt. Faris told him to go home. Vasquez replied, “I am home. I live here.” Sgt. Faris left the kneeling subjects and pushed Vazquez, again telling him to go home. Vazquez said, don’t (expletive) touch me.” Sgt. Faris exclaimed, “I will touch you anytime I want to touch you. You understand that?”

Contreras, who was about to get into his car heard the commotion, walked over to see what was going on and, along with multiple witnesses, observed Sgt. Faris force Vasquez to the ground and begin beating him with his baton.

Contreras verbally protested and Officer Hines came at him from behind without warning and, using a two-handed baseball grip on his baton, struck him on his left arm/elbow, knocking him to the pavement.

While on the ground, Officer Hines continued to strike Contreras – admitting to delivering 17 blows (witnesses testified to many more), later justifying his brutality by saying, “he refused verbal commands to lie on his stomach.”

Officer Hines then walked to where Vasquez was lying on the ground and maliciously stomped on and ground his foot into his hand, fracturing multiple finger bones.

In a future column we will provide a more in-depth examination of the subsequent corrupted Internal Affairs investigation(s), cover-ups, the failed criminal prosecution of Contreras and the intimidation tactics that led up to the $2.477 million federal lawsuit in which an eight-person federal jury awarded the largest ever non-fatal brutality verdict in the history of the district court.

But, for now, we jump ahead to the city council meeting held two weeks later (Aug. 8, 2017), to assess the police department’s portion of the mayor’s budget and examine why it does not include an appropriation for Body Worn Cameras (BWC) – a piece of modern police equipment that could have prevented the $2.477 million Vasquez/Contreras lawsuit – as well as many others.

In his $241.8 million police budget presentation to the city council, Chief of Police Robert Luna recapped past operations and accomplishments, announced a number of “nice-to-have” feel-good projects and programming aimed at “building community trust” and then made reference to “continuing (to study) the body-worn camera pilot project,” which he told the council is “scheduled to conclude in November.”

What he didn’t say – according to the budget document – is that the pilot project is scheduled to conclude in November 2018 – not 2017 – as the council was led to believe.

The council previously funded $210,000 for a BWC pilot program that was first rolled out on November 5, 2016 to approximately 40 patrol officers and supervisors in the West Patrol Division.

At that time Chief Luna said “The pilot program will continue for up to one year.… Our goal with the body -worn-camera program is to help enhance community trust and underscore law enforcement legitimacy and accountability.”

But, the chief’s (mayor’s) enthusiasm for “enhancing community trust” seems to have waned a year later. When he finished his budget presentation 3rd District Councilwoman Suzie Price asked why BWCs were not in this year’s budget. He replied that it was “complicated, extremely expensive … requires a huge investment … and the city would have to make a significant financial commitment to do it.”

To her credit, Price acknowledged that BWCs are what modern police departments should be – and are – deploying. She was clearly dissatisfied that the LBPD was not stepping up to the plate, telling the chief “the question used to be, who’s using the body cameras? And today the question is, who’s not using them?” She closed her remarks with an admonition to Chief Luna, saying, “I think that it’s something we need to figure out and implement.”

 We couldn’t agree more. And we couldn’t disagree more with the chief’s (mayor, city manager,  POA?) position that it’s complicated or that it requires a huge investment.

The City of Fontana is proof of that.  Fontana recently implemented an advanced BWC system. The program kick-off involved Fontana’s mayor, chief of police, city technologists and the president of the Police Officer’s Association, all of whom praised the value and cost-effectiveness of their technologically advanced body camera (computer) system.

“We are excited about this technology and the positive impacts it can have on our community and organization,” said Fontana Police Chief Bob Ramsey. “We will use this as a tool to enhance public safety and ensure officers maintain the high standards of professionalism expected by the department.”

In their announcement the Fontana Police Department said that it would focus on the impact of the BWC in the following areas:

Enhance officer safety and agency accountability

Increase public trust and confidence in the performance of our employees

Enhance the quality of cases prepared and evidence collected and presented for prosecution

Assist officers with report preparation and courtroom testimony

Provide data to assist the department in evaluating and improving departmental policies and practices, officer safety/training/tactics and further develop police-community relations

After watching Fontana’s highly impressive on-line implementation video the Beachcomber contacted the city’s vendor, Visual Labs, a software company in Menlo Park, and asked what it would cost to deploy 500 BWCs in Long Beach.

Here’s a synopsis of their reply:

Visual Labs provides state-of-art software that can be loaded into any smart (Android) device the department chooses to use. It records audio, video, stills and has applications for all aspects of police work, including crime scene investigations, heat source identification and GPS tracking when an officer is out of the car.

The system auto uploads to an encrypted secure government cloud in 15 seconds; multiple cameras running at the same time on-scene can be played back in sync; command posts or dispatchers can activate any camera to monitor on-scene activity and the system does not require expensive routers, wiring or docking stations – all management nightmares.

The total up-front cost, including hardware, a mounting solution, training and implementation would be $50,000 plus Visual Labs software/storage at $210,000 and cellular connectivity at $150,000 for a total first year cost of $410,000 and $360,000 per year thereafter.

The total Long Beach City budget is $2.7 billion.  It includes $12,211,000 for new or improved bicycle lanes and an outrageous - underhandedly manipulated – $5 million increase (plus 37.8 percent over last year) for police skill pay on top miscellaneous other millions for “nice-to-have” – as opposed to essential – budget allocations.

It is a disgrace that Mayor Garcia’s budget allocates nothing toward Chief Luna’s once important goal to “enhance community trust and underscore law enforcement legitimacy and accountability,” through the deployment of a BWC program.

A $360,000 annual expenditure that will enhance public trust, protect our police officers from false allegations and provide convincing evidence in criminal prosecutions and internal affairs investigations is negligible when compared to the on-going assaults on our public treasury by nice-to-have, photo-op, ribbon-cutting programs, secret conflict-of-interest-ridden labor negotiations and a constant flow of lawsuits like that delivered to us by Sgt. Feris and Officer Hines – both of whom would have certainly exercised better self-control and professional judgment had they been wearing body cameras.

It’s not too late. The city council can reverse the mayor, fund the program and order it to be implemented in 2018.

A few hundred residents collectively wearing red shirts (and/or cameras) appearing at 3rd district Councilwoman Suzie Price’s budget meeting on Thursday August 31, at 6 p.m. at the Field Office (340 Nieto Ave) or the next (and possibly last) council budget hearing in council chambers (333 W. Ocean Blvd.)  on Sept. 5 at 5 p.m. just may be able to convince our council members that the mayors budget should focus on essentials – like body cameras and effective public safety allocations that returns the strength of our police department to its pre-recession levels - rather than nice-to-have pet projects like $12.2 million for bicycle lanes and campaign quid-pro-quos that squanders millions of dollars on windfall levels of skill pay.  

Stephen Downing is a retired LAPD deputy chief of police and a resident of Long Beach.



I have a novel idea. In the future all costs for lawsuits against the police department, should come out of the costs for running the police department. This would mean for these latest transgressions, the amount of the funds paid out for the lawsuit and all the costs for defending the city, should come out of the police department budget. No one gets laid off, but everyone in the police department has their salary reduced by a percentage point, to cover the costs. This lowered salary would also be reflected in a reduction of the pension, because they would be receiving a lower income on which their pension is based. Why should the citizens of Long Beach, have to pay additional moneys for the police department that does not act properly. Maybe a little reduction in salary will make the officers in question do a better job and cover for someone who does not.

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