While protesters marched through the streets of Burbank this week with cries of “Defund the police” and “This is what democracy looks like,” the City Council heard from residents concerned about their local Police Department.
The virtual council meeting took place as protesters assembled in front of the Men’s Wearhouse at the Empire Center, one of several demonstrations that have arisen in Burbank while hundreds have been held across the country to demand police reform and justice for black people killed by officers.
Those demands were echoed at the council meeting, with residents requesting that members review the Burbank Police Department’s budget and use-of-force policies.
However, those matters, which were brought up after a brief report from Chief Scott LaChasse, were not addressed by council members during Tuesday’s meeting.
“It is important for us to be clear and specific right now, because we are at a pivotal moment in history,” said Heather Robb, who called in from the protest to comment at the meeting. “I hope this moment does for Burbank what we see it doing in cities all over our country, causing us to examine and reflect on the role that police play in our communities.”
Robb also asked the council to revisit the department’s budget, saying that the percentage of funds allocated to it does not reflect the community’s values. The department’s $61.76 million general fund budget is about 31% of the city’s total proposed general fund budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, though city staff members have previously warned that there remain many financial unknowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sgt. Derek Green, public information officer for the BPD, said in an emailed statement that “the Burbank Police Department believes that adequate training and equipping of police officers is essential to public safety and safeguarding our community. Training and equipment comes at an expense. Any reductions in funding would have a detrimental effect on the Department’s ability to continue on its path of progressive law enforcement reform.”
In an open letter released on June 5, LaChasse addressed the death of George Floyd after the Minneapolis man was taken into police custody, an event that sparked the nationwide protests.
“Foremost, we condemn all unlawful uses of force and violations of due process,” he said in the letter, adding that the BPD has implemented several policies to prevent incidents of excessive force, including training in de-escalation and requiring personnel to intervene when they witness the use of excessive force.
Green also said the department’s policies on hate crimes and use of force can be viewed on its website.
Also available on the website is a rundown of citizen and internal complaints against department employees. Linda Bessin, who also called in to the council meeting, said that she feels there is a lack of transparency at the department and that the 2018 report — the most recent available — lists all 18 civilian complaints of discrimination or harassment as having been dismissed as “unfounded.”
The same report also lists six complaints of excessive force. None were marked as “sustained,” the department’s label for incidents that both occurred and involved misconduct.
In a 2018 audit, the Office of Independent Review, an external group that annually investigated the BPD, commended the department’s review process, finding that while there were areas for improvement, most of the uses of force were considered to be relatively minor, such as apprehending someone resisting arrest.
However, the audit did highlight an incident in 2016, when a man was killed after an officer used a Taser on him for a total of 28 seconds. The OIR stated that the department did not sufficiently investigate the incident, only reporting the use of the Taser to be “in policy.”
The OIR report for 2019 will be available for the City Council meeting on July 14, according to Mayor Sharon Springer, who suggested that residents could bring up their concerns then.
Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy also expressed interest in revisiting the frequency of Police Commission meetings on the next council agenda. The group, which acts as a civilian oversight committee for the BPD, used to meet monthly but changed to quarterly meetings in 2019.
CHIEF COMMENDS OFFICERS’ RESPONSE TO PROTESTS
LaChasse said during the meeting that a dialogue with the community would be held in the “not so distant future,” and that the department is available to discuss residents’ concerns in the meantime.
“We realize we need to sit down and discuss where we’ve been, where we want to be, and how we’re going to get there,” he said at the council meeting.
He also highlighted the work of BPD personnel, including those working behind the scenes. Many of the personnel, he said, had been working 12-hour shifts for nearly two weeks as residents demonstrated in the streets.
There had been about eight demonstrations in the city, he told council members, with the largest held on June 4 with roughly 1,200 people attending. The department had previously estimated the crowd at 500 to 1000 people.
Officers were able to meet with many of the protest organizers, LaChasse explained. In the case of the June 4 protest that began at McCambridge Park, police even escorted demonstrators, stopping traffic to allow them to move through the streets safely.
LaChasse also said that, unlike in other cities, there had been no arrests or uses of force by officers against protesters — significant, he added, considering the emotional nature of the protests. There had been no complaints about officers during the time of the marches, he said.
“I’m very heartened to say that we’re all impressed with what [police personnel] did,” he told the council.