Cops Watching Cops

Police watchdog agency the Office of Citizen Complaints braces for its fifth lame director

Sadly, this greasing of the tracks for another weak, compromised OCC is at complete odds with the anything-goes mentality that's taken hold in the Police Department since former Police Chief Frank Jordan was elected.

Defense attorney Nanci Clarence, who was at the Hall of Justice the day after Jordan's election, remembers the palpable change in police attitude. "It was like the lunatics running the asylum," she says. "You could see and feel the elation of the police officer showing up to testify. The sissy liberals had been thrown out, and the old boys were back in charge."

Just this month, the need for a strong, independent OCC was brought into stark relief by the $300,000 court settlement the city paid out to avoid a wrongful death suit and the two suspects who died in custody after resisting arrest and being subdued by packs of officers.

The unusually large court settlement was paid to the family of a man who was allegedly shot in the back as he ran away from Officer William Wohler.

On June 4, Aaron Williams, a burglary suspect, died of a heart attack as he lay unattended in a police van after what witnesses say was a savage attack by 12 officers. Only two days earlier, another suspect died of a heart attack in police custody after numerous officers were called in to subdue him.

The Williams death also exposed the reluctance of police officials to face up to misconduct and fire or retrain officers. Three of the four senior officers in charge during Williams' alleged beating had been sued in the past for violent acts of alleged brutality, costing the city almost $30,000 in out-of-court settlements.

But perhaps the best example of the police's attitudes about misconduct came from the inspector in charge of assessing who was at fault in the death of Williams. Inspector Jim Bergstrom told the Associated Press: "When this guy was alive he was a bum. And all of a sudden ... you forget about his blemishes. He was cracked up to his eyeballs. He just burned himself out." (Wonder how Bergstrom's probe will come out.)

Yet, even these provocative events fail to outrage OCC supporters. Not that they've lost interest, but after watching the same train wreck for 12 years, only shallow reservoirs of emotion remain.

"It's dŽjà vu," says Ammiano, who has made reforming the OCC a top priority.

"I haven't yet given up hope, but I'm feeling very, very tired," says Clarence, who handles many police brutality cases and was a key backer of the 1982 ballot measure that created the OCC.

As Clarence speaks to a reporter, she notices a new brutality complaint against Officer Wohler sitting on her desk. "My God," she mutters. "Won't they ever get it?"

Clarence sees subtle sabotage at work in the continued selection of bad OCC directors. "It's the POA politics in this town," she says, referring to the powerful police union. "They are a tremendously important constituency to have in your favor if you are a politician."

So mayors pick do-nothing bureaucrats or pro-cop police commissioners who ensure that the OCC never gets a maverick director who can stand the whipsaw political winds that swirl around the issue of police discipline.

But in addition to leadership, Ammiano says the OCC needs sweeping reform. The freshman supervisor has established an informal working group of civil rights advocates, attorneys, and activists who are drafting a charter amendment aimed at putting the OCC on track.

Some of the ideas include skirting the police commission and establishing a new judicial panel to mete out police discipline; a budget trigger that funds an OCC investigator for every 150 officers; and allowing the OCC to go around the police chief and prosecute more cases before the Police Commission.

Involved in Ammiano's working group are relatives and neighbors of Tim Sullivan, the Excelsior district youth killed by Officer Wohler. "I will do everything I can to make sure people like the Sullivans are not shined on anymore," says Ammiano. "I'm not going to let go of this issue.

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