By Will Freeney | firstname.lastname@example.org
Eighteen years is a long time for a bad marriage – especially a pre-arranged one. For the City of Fresno, that marriage is finally coming to an end. Unlike the world of marriage and divorce, in the world of city management, the matchmaker can arrange for the children to have a say in selecting their replacement stepfather. That process took place early in May, in five separate regional town hall meetings – one for each of the five policing districts (Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and Central). City residents were invited to specify the qualities they were looking for in a replacement for Jerry Dyer, the Chief of Police for the last eighteen years – and to specify the ongoing issues in Fresno that they would like the new Chief of Police to correct or at least address.
There were four specific questions to be addressed, which were also available in an online survey, which remained open for participation until May 31st. Those questions were:
1. What are the challenges in the City that you would like the new Police Chief to address?
2. What issues facing the City should the new Police Chief be aware of and understand?
3. What qualities are most important to look for in the next Police Chief?
4. Is there anything else the City Manager should consider when selecting the next Police Chief?
Mayor Lee Brand arranged the town halls, and reminded each of the town hall meetings, in his introductory remarks, that it was the fulfillment of a promise he made during his campaign for mayor in 2016. He also selected facilitators for each of the meetings (presumedly intending to create an assembly that represented the community culture of that district). Central District had Dr. Jackie Ryle, academic and consultant; Northeast had Larry Powell, former Superintendent of Fresno Unified School District; Northwest had Judge Robert Oliver, of Fresno County Superior Court; Southeast had Pao Vang, CEO of The Fresno Center, and Pastor Elias Loera; and Southwest had Reverends Binyon, Criner, and Lewis, of various local congregations. The meetings they created each had a different style, accordingly. Attendees of the Central meeting were asked to step to a microphone, line up, and address each of the four questions posed as they saw fit. The Reverends divided their collective congregation of citizens into four small discussion groups and then reconvened for a report-out from each, addressing one question at a time. In the Southeast, Pao Vang did most of the supervision of discussion, while Pastor Loera provided his own responses to the questions as a starting point for discussion. In the Northwest, Judge Oliver conducted the meeting more like a talk show (or maybe a jury trial), providing an extensive introduction regarding the office of the Chief of Police and the Police Department, and interrogating each of the citizens speaking, getting up close to them at the microphone.
Other anomalies included the attendance of City Manager, Wilma Quon, at only the Southeast and Northwest town halls, and the presence of the PD District Commander at the Southwest meeting, as well as Councilmember Arias.
Mayor Brand provided each of the town hall meetings with introductory remarks (except the Southeast meeting, where Mark Standiff, Fresno Director of Communication and Public Affairs, served as his proxy), which explained the history of Dyer’s tenure in brief and explained the purpose of the town hall meetings. That purpose was to acquire shareholder input on the future of Fresno, as it is shaped by the Police Chief and his department. That input will be forwarded to the headhunting firm the City has selected, which will perform a nationwide search to collect a list of appropriate candidates. Those candidates will then be interviewed by a hiring panel which will include citizen panelists. The hiring panel will cull a much shorter list, which will be reviewed by the City Manager, who will make the final decision as to who becomes the next Fresno Chief of Police.
Despite the disparate approaches, all five town halls brought forth similar responses.
A summary assessment of the town hall opinions could be that the participants often defined what they wanted as an absence or opposite of what they have suffered with for the last eighteen years. One of the recurring issues mentioned was the amount of the total city budget that has been allocated to the Police Department – 80 percent was the figure repeatedly mentioned. There seemed to be a nearly universal sentiment that the citizens were not getting proportional (if any) service for that dollar amount and that that ratio was entirely inappropriate. Several speakers suggested that a significant portion of that money would be better invested in social services. The woeful state of street maintenance was another area where it was felt those dollars could be better spent. More and better parks were yet another.
The issue of parks brings up a personal issue regarding Dyer’s reign that citizens definitely do not want to see perpetuated by a new Police Chief – the politicization of the office and the use of the office as a bully pulpit for political intrusion. Dyer vocally opposed the PARCS (Measure P) ballot measure which would have provided bond monies for the creation of new parks, recreation, and arts opportunities within the City. Brand abortively added an “alternative” measure to the ballot that would have funneled more money to the police and fire departments – then quickly withdrew it. Most recently, Dyer spoke out against Assemblyman Arambula while he was awaiting trial on child abuse charges – of which he was acquitted.
The City’s implementation of an additional $40 “service fee” for the towing of parked vehicles was another recurring complaint. Although Dyer can’t be blamed for that legislation, he was accused of an aggressive enforcement policy, which was seen by those who mentioned it as a predatory behavior, victimizing those who are towed for infractions like expired tags (which are expired because they can’t afford the renewal) with an additional fee they can’t afford to pay – non-payment of which will result in further fines, not to mention the tow and storage fees.
Gang enforcement and gang enhancements were another issue of concern for several attendees, who called out the Police Department’s approach to gang presence in the City – complaining that the lives of their sons, nephews, grandsons were irrevocably altered for the worse by the department’s singling them out – arresting, prosecuting, and sentencing them in disproportionate numbers among the City’s people of color.
Almost every town hall mentioned the disservice that SROs (“School Resource Officers”) provide as armed police officers on the school grounds of every school in Fresno. There were complaints by students in those schools that they do little other than create an atmosphere of intimidation. Several adults in those meetings pointed out that that intimidation is not conducive to learning. A representative of Barrios Unidos explicitly stated that the SROs were contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Disparate policing, based on geography and demographics, was a universal complaint. This story, as it includes the Fresno Police Department, could be called A Tale of Two Cities. The over-policed, aggressively policed of those two cities is known as South of Shaw. The other is known simply as North Fresno in aggregate. There, there were actually a few citizens who complained of not having enough police (despite a Police Department that siphons 80% of the City’s budget).
This is only one of several components of the profile provided by citizens as a clear indication that Jerry Dyer is, indeed, a racist. Judge Oliver, in his extensive preview of the force, revealed what looks like racism and sexism in the department’s hiring practices: 721 men and 92 women, 48.5% white officers, 38.9% Hispanic officers, only 5.8% Black officers, 5.8% Southeast Asian officers, and 2.4% Pacific Islander officers. On this topic, Pao Vang mentioned that the force had no Hmong interpreter and had to borrow one from the Fresno-Yosemite airport for a case of which he was aware.
It is incumbent on the people of Fresno to avail themselves of a replacement who is an improvement on the incumbent. The process beyond the town halls is only vaguely sketched out (see above) so far, and the whole process is to be completed by September, to put the new Police Chief in office before the old one retires in October. Toward that end, keep your eyes and ears on the news and keep the City Manager’s phone number (559-621-7770) on speed dial – to assure that progress is made and determine the shape of that progress. Contact your City Councilmember if you can’t reach the City Manager. It will, no doubt, be a busy time for her office. And as this article is being written, Lee Brand has opted out of a reelection bid, leaving the door open for Jerry Dyer, who has officially announced his bid for mayor as his next bastion.
Civis sit quod vigilanti semper.