RICHMOND -- Several police commissioners -- residents who are tasked with investigating complaints against law enforcement -- say the city is blocking their efforts to look into an officer-involved shooting that left an unarmed man dead last year and that continues to be a flashpoint in the community.
The commissioners say the city attorney has not only blocked the complaint by the victim's family from being investigated but also failed to notify the group that it had received correspondence from the family and then warned commissioners to not discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting, effectively censoring them.
"The community wants transparency, and we can't give them that," said Scott Gillespie, the chairman of the Richmond Police Commission and a former police officer.
The case in question involves 24-year-old Richard "Pedie" Perez, who was shot and killed outside Uncle Sam's Liquors in Richmond last September. Perez, who was intoxicated but unarmed, refused the officer's commands, tried to leave and was tackled by the officer.
Moments later, the young man was shot three times in the torso and died inside the convenience store. The officer has maintained that he shot Perez after the young man tried to grab his gun, causing him to fear for his life.
The Perez family, which is suing the city, this March also filed a complaint with the police commission, mentioning that their delay was due to not knowing about the group's existence. But the claim was rejected on grounds that it had been filed later than the 45 days required by city ordinance.
In a letter to the Perez family, City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller explained the rationale, saying that "this incident has already been investigated by both the district attorney and by a neutral investigator retained by the city. Additionally, this matter is the subject of active litigation. ... Even if these complaints were timely, and they are not, I am doubtful that a third investigation ... would add any value."
That's something many police commissioners dispute, saying the city should not be the one to decide which cases the commission, an independent body whose mission is to investigate resident complaints of excessive force and racially abusive treatment, hears.
"It's absolutely reprehensible for the city attorney to suggest that investigations into police shootings by the district attorney and police department render independent citizen review unnecessary, especially in a city that established a board specifically for that purpose," wrote Commissioner Felix Hunziker in an editorial on a community news site. "DAs are prosecutors and, not surprisingly, have generally positive relationships with cops. No sane person believes a complaint against a police officer would receive an objective review unless every fragment of doubt was removed."
Goodmiller said the decision to not hear the Perez case was made by the confidential investigator and appeals officer, the only paid position on the commission and appointed by the City Council.
The investigator, Terry Simpson, a retired Pleasant Hill police officer who has since resigned from the commission, gave no notice of his departure to the group. Commissioners only learned Simpson was no longer with the city after they tried to agendize an item directing him to interview the Perez family about their reason for filing the claim late. Simpson also failed to notify the commissioners about the complaint, as required, meaning the group only found out about it after the city issued a denial letter to the Perezes, according to Gillespie.
Reached by phone, Simpson said he resigned because "it was time to retire" but declined to discuss the case, referring all questions to the city attorney. Asked whom he worked for in his role as an independent investigator, Simpson said his employment was with the city attorney's office.
"They're the ones I had a contract with," he said. "It's very clear to me who I worked for."
Not all the commissioners are in agreement. Commissioner Bea Roberson said she supported the confidential investigator's decision to not pursue the case.
"We should let the (federal) court decide ... we can't do anything to interfere with the lawsuit as we have nothing except speculation to go on," she said.
The Richmond Police Commission was created 30 years ago to investigate police misconduct, following litigation against the "Richmond Cowboys," a group of white officers who worked at night and harassed and often shot and killed unarmed African-American residents. But the extent of the commission's influence is questionable, considering it can only issue recommendations to the police chief, which, if denied, could be appealed to the city manager's office and then the City Council.
"The commission is giving people false hope and a false sense of security," said Cochise Potts, who served on the Richmond Police Commission from 2005 to 2007. "That body is supposed to be independent of the city, no different from a grand jury. ... People go to prison based on what the police and the district attorney put together, but where is the other side?"
Yet the biggest challenge to the commission may be just letting people know it exists, Potts said. That's a concern raised by many current commissioners, who lamented recent cuts that have left the group with a bare-bones budget of $23,000 a year, including just several hundred dollars for outreach activities.
Jael Myrick, the City Council's liaison to the police commission, said the Perez family deserved to have its case heard by an independent body.
"Richmond has one of the best police forces in the country, but even the best police force can make mistakes and needs an independent investigation of the process," he said. "We are going to take action on changing this ordinance and give the commission the authority to investigate this."
Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
Photo: Contra Costa Times