DOJ Finds Salinas PD Needs Serious Reform
By MATTHEW RENDA
SALINAS, Calif. (CN) - The Salinas Police Department needs a major overhaul in its policies on police shootings, has an ineffective philosophy of community engagement, a lack of transparency and a fundamental failure to respect and understand the Hispanic members of its community, according to a Justice Department report released Tuesday.
"Today's report will not only assist the Salinas Police Department in building trust with community, but serve as a blueprint to police agencies across the country," said Noble Ray, a former police chief and current chief of the Department of Justice COPS Office Policing Practices and Accountability Initiative.
City leaders and officials from the Justice Department held a press conference in downtown Salinas to discuss "The Collaborative Reform Initiative: An Assessment of the Salinas Department," a 192-page report that critically examines the police department and its policies, outlining 61 findings and 110 recommendations to reform the department so it functions with more accountability and more orientation toward community policing.
Ray highlighted four areas for particular concern during a press conference in downtown Salinas on Tuesday: the department's officers were ill-equipped to appropriately deal with individuals suffering from mental health; officers fail to receive adequate training relating to de-escalation techniques; the department's internal investigation mechanisms are insufficient bringing into questions its ability to consistently introduce accountability and the department fails to understand the extent to which the relationship between it and the community is in disrepair.
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin said he initially sought the creation of the report after he saw a significant erosion of trust between the community and its police department, particularly after four officer shootings in 2014 resulted in the deaths of four individuals, all of whom were Hispanic.
"The shootings were very controversial and resulted in some civil unrest in our city," McMillin said. "It highlighted, as I think we have seen nationally, tensions between law enforcement and the communities we serve."
The police shootings in Salinas occurred toward the end of 2014, during the same period when the nation was riveted by the widespread protests in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson.
McMillian responded to the report's findings, many of which were extremely critical of his department, with a mixture of contrition and defiance.
"Some of what is in this report is new," he said. "Some of it we disagree with. But much of it we could have written ourselves. There are no surprises."
McMillan accounted for his department's lack of community-oriented policing by saying his department suffers from a lack of resources. His police officers are too busy reacting to serious crimes to have time to engage community members in way the report recommends.
McMillan also noted that while the report criticized the manner in which the department investigated police shootings, it found the four incidents in question were all legally justified.
"I was pleased to find that in the relatively rare instances when Salinas Police Officers do use force, there is no sign of bias or disparate treatment with how force is used with people of different races," he said. "Race and ethnicity make you no more or less likely to be subject to the use of force."
But McMillan did acknowledge that the report criticized his departments reporting of use-of-force incidents and the report further recommends the creation of an independent agency responsible for investigating such incidents.
The Justice Department also recommends convening a citizen oversight committee to oversee aspects of the police department, particularly as it relates police shootings and in-custody deaths.
Ray said the Justice Department will follow up with the Salinas Police Department to monitor its reform efforts.
"What will happen is that in six months, we will go over those 61 findings and 110 recommendations and get a status report as to how the department has set about accomplishing those findings and recommendations," he said.
In the meantime, McMillan vowed to take steps toward bridging the divide between his department, its officers and Salinas residents.