Fresno · Highlight

The future of Fresno Police: a commission, a budget, and a new Chief

On many fronts, changes appear to be never too far away at the Fresno Police Department.

June 2020 will be no exception.

In fact, it is safe to assume that this month will alter the trajectory of the police force for California’s fifth-largest city moving forward.

Last week, amid a flurry of budgetary reports surveying the economic carnage of the coronavirus pandemic and continued unrest over police misconduct following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Fresno City Councilmembers authorized a Commission on Police Reform with an eye toward strengthening community policing.

The formation, crafted with the imprimatur of Mayor Lee Brand and Mayor-Elect (and former Police Chief) Jerry Dyer, staked the Council’s long-standing pursuit of delivering reforms to Mariposa Mall.

It serves as the first of three moves that will reset the trajectory of Fresno’s largest public department.

The Commission

Following a presentation from Fresno State’s NAACP chapter on Thursday, the Commission on Police Reform was announced, with former Fresno City Council member and ex-Fresno Police Officer Oliver Baines III heading the panel.

Along with support from the outgoing and incoming Fresno Mayors, the panel idea also received an endorsement from Fresno’s Police Union.

“It’s about building communication, which will build trust,” Fresno Police Officers Association president Todd Fraizer told GVWire.

In the days following his appointment, Baines stressed that the ultimate mission of the commission was to deliver tangible progress toward a culture shift toward community policing.

“Community-based policing has everything to do with the culture of a police department. That culture is dictated by what the mission statement is. That culture is dictated by what the policies are. That’s what we’re going to be going after,” the former councilman told GVWire.

Despite calls from the NAACP to oust Fresno’s police auditor, John Gliatta, the position remains a critical element of day-to-day, quarter-to-quarter oversight of police incidents.

Gliatta, the former Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the FBI’s Sacramento field office, has provided the Office of Independent Review with thorough, in-person oversight of the department.

His predecessor, Rick Rasmussen, held the position remotely from his home in Utah for five years.

Full details of the panel, beyond its main charge, are still vague but likely to be clarified this week.

Further, how the commission will jibe with Mayor Lee Brand’s three-year-old Citizens Public Safety Advisory Board – which was formed to “enhance trust, accountability and transparency and promote higher standards of services in the Fresno Police Department” – is equally unclear.

The Budget

The current national climate surrounding police misconduct has only heightened criticism of the Fresno Police Department’s budget.

Activists have pointed to the department’s sizeable share – roughly 53 percent – of the annual city budget as a rallying cry to defund the department altogether.

The concept of defunding the police department has universally dismissed from all corners of Fresno City Hall as not only unrealistic, but a nonstarter.

Separately, Fresno’s police budgeting falls in line with most California’s cities. An budget analysis for the League of California Cities, conducted by Coleman Advisory Services, finds that police funding accounts for approximately 55 percent of a total city budget annually.

However, given Fresno’s coronavirus-driven revenue shortfall, estimated currently at $32 million, cuts are undoubtedly coming to the City’s single largest expenditure item in one form or another.

There are some elements of Fresno Police funding that could come under attack.

One path? Capping the percentage of funding dedicated to the dedicated to the police department at below 50 percent.

But perhaps no target is larger than the costs associated with lawsuits and legal settlements due to officer incidents.

Last fall, as Dyer sought to replace Brand as Mayor, the issue of police lawsuit liability hit a flashpoint, with current Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias suggesting Fresno may have to declare a fiscal emergency to provide for legal settlements.

Such a declaration would have enabled Fresno’s City Council to tap tens of millions in rainy-day funds to pay lawsuit settlements.

However, Brand administration officials contended that a fiscal emergency declaration would only have been necessary if the City of Fresno opted to settle out all pending lawsuits in the fall of 2019 and begin immediate payouts, an unprecedented and unlikely maneuver that has never come to pass.

Public floor fight abandoned

Monday’s meeting certainly isn’t the set-up originally envisioned by Arias, who sought to have the council’s first public hearing since the legislative body took to Zoom in early April.

The move to host a meeting at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre – announced on Tuesday and abandoned by Friday – was largely panned by the Brand administration and Fresno’s police union when Arias announced it.

Yet, in back-to-back meetings, the Council has been subject to so-called “Zoombombers,” viewers of the Council meetings who have hijacked the floor with obscenities, racial epithets, and graphic sexual content.

Yet, Arias said the end of the Zoom era is concluding – just not when he hoped.

Lighting upgrades in the City Council chambers ensure that the next in-person meeting won’t occur until the end of June or early July.

Sweeping vs. Stopgap Budget

Another key consideration to Monday’s budget fight over police is whether the Fresno City Council will adopt an annual budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 or adopt Brand’s 90-day continuing resolution.

Despite a heavy push from the Brand administration to adopt a three-month short-term budget that maintains current spending levels across-the-board, there appears minimal appetite for holding spending and fully surveying the pandemic’s revenue fallout in October.

The Chief

While sea changes are set to arrive in budgetary and policy terms, Fresno’s police force is also due for a change in skipper.

Last August, Fresno was introduced to its 22nd Police Chief – Andy Hall.

Hall, a captain in the back 24 months of his career per the City’s retirement structure, was chosen after the most-transparent police chief search Fresno has ever undertaken.

For those closely following the public fora soliciting input on qualities and strategic vision for the next police chief, Hall’s selection was a surprise.

For starters, he wasn’t an active candidate for the job. Meanwhile, two fellow Fresno Police colleagues were considered, along with a smattering of candidates from outside of Fresno.

It was long-mused that succeeding Dyer, whose 18-year tenure as Police Chief is among the longest of America’s big cities, would be a difficult and unenviable assignment given his charismatic leadership style.

Now, with Hall in his last year before retirement, Mayor Lee Brand has again committed to a search for a permanent successor as Chief of Police before he hands the keys of the Mayor’s office to Dyer in January.

With climate, budget, and policy headwinds to come, running the Fresno Police Department remains a tall task.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.