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File a Complaint With the CPRB: 'It's all we have to document police abuse, until a better world is created,' says ex-board member Dan Alper.


Fig Leafs

What should you do if you're unhappy with police conduct? File a complaint with the Citizens' Police Review Board, of course. But you may find yourself waiting for the figging leaves to fall.

As Dan Alper, who resigned Monday after 18 months on the CPRB, explains, "At present, people can point to the CPRB and say, 'We don't need anything else. It does the job.' But really the CPRB is like a fig leaf: it covers up everything nicely. And that's all."

Says Alper, whose voting record on the CPRB was strongly supportive of the police, "The Santa Cruz Police Department have unprecedented power. They haven't bought into this review board process at all. This is an educated progressive college community. We should have a viable police review board. And we don't."

Complaints brought before the CPRB, says Alper, quickly became thorny issues, partly because of the police union's strength, and partly because of the Santa Cruz City Council's cowardice. "The police are city employees. They have a very powerful union. With all the City Council has to do, they are not willing to take the police on. So, the council put us out front, with no shield. No one ever shows up at our meetings. and we never hear back from the police or city council."

So how exactly does the CPRB work ?

Citizens fill out CPRB complaint forms, which are sent direct to the SCPD. The police do a lengthy internal investigation, then send a report with recommendations to the CPRB. Neither funded nor authorized to do its own investigation, the CPRB can only review the police's report in deciding whether a complaint is unfounded or sustained. The CPRB sends its recommendations to the police and City Council.

And that, says Alper sadly, is the end of the story.

Last year the CPRB, which receives about two complaints a month, agreed with the police in over 94 percent of cases, and upheld four complaints, compared to five in 1998, six in 1997 and nine in 1996.

"Because of the police union, we can't air the identity of police officer[s] in question. We are set up to be a meaningless ornament, a badge on the SCPD's lapels," says Alper.

Six months ago then-Mayor Keith Sugar invited Alper onto an ad hoc committee to revise CPRB's charter, but problems developed.

Says Alper, "We wanted to close the meeting to the public so we could let our hair down, but that was ruled unconstitutional. Then the election came, and no politician wanted to touch the issue. Now it's February. Still nothing has happened."

During his 18-month tenure, Alper says he believes the police abused its power during the trial of Kosovo protester Steve Argue, who was subsequently jailed for nine months for attacking a police officer.

"At Argue's court appearance, about 20 police officers showed up for the sentencing, half of them in uniform. I call that an illegal show of force. It was intimidating. I don't think the police should show up like that while on duty and being paid by the city. I thought it was dead wrong," Alper says.

But despite Alper's efforts to talk to Chief of Police Steven Belcher and get the CPRB to vote on the issue, nothing happened.

"By not acknowledging any abuse of power, by muzzling criticism, the police are bottling up people's frustration, which is not a healthy situation in a liberal university town," says Alper. "Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco have CPRBs that are more progressive. But all the Santa Cruz City Council wants is a buffer, so they don't have to call the police department out onto the carpet. I used to equate Berkeley and Santa Cruz, but you know what? In police surveillance and police response to the community, Santa Cruz is 30 years behind."

Park? What Park?

Alper's comments are cold comfort for 18-year-old Beach Flats resident Christina Lafoya, who had a midnight encounter with the SCPD last summer that has left her with $279 worth of tickets--and the conviction that police had abused their power.

In August 2000, Lafoya and two companions were walking home from a party around midnight, when two squad cars swooped. According to Lafoya, the police got out, drew their weapons and told the trio to freeze, then pulled the three young people of color into a park on Raymond at Udon Street.

"Actually, it's more like a cement walkway," says Lafoya of the so-called park, which borders a neighborhood basketball court. Lafoya, who was brought up to know her rights, started asking questions, but instead of getting answers, she says she got abuse. "Sgt. [Steve] Clark told me to shut up, sit down and put my face on the ground, while another officer got the K-9 unit out the car."

Lafoya says that Sgt. Clark, Sgt. Kevin Vogel, officer Romel Cuellar and officer Edward Essegian pointed weapons at her and her friend. "With the dog barking we were forced into a prone position, face down, hands behind our backs. They told us to stay there until they searched us," says Lafoya. When she objected, saying they needed a female officer to do the search, the police handcuffed the trio--and Sgt. Clark put Lafoya in the squad car.

"He told me if I didn't shut up, I'd be jailed for resisting arrest."

"Arrest for what? You can't do this" said Lafoya, to which Clark allegedly replied, "You're wrong. I can do whatever I want." The police told Lafoya that the trio "fitted the description of subjects in a fight on Ocean Street but they never told us we didn't have to answer any of their questions," she says.

When Lafoya said she wanted names and badge numbers, Essegian, Lafoya claims, made yackety-yak signals with his hands. "He said, 'You talk too much. I'm not giving you f-ing anything,' then he got in his car and drove away," says Lafoya.

An hour after the incident began, the trio were released, but not before each was given a $175 ticket "for being in a park after hours."

Lafoya, who refused to pay the ticket, received an additional $104 misdemeanor for her "failure to appear in court," a fine the single working mother will have to pay no matter what, says Referee John Mulligan, who will personally view "the park" this week to see if it is indeed a park.

Says the 5-foot-1 Lafoya, "I feel the police were threatened by my words. They assumed they could get away with it, but the SCPD does not have that right."

Alper's advice to Lafoya? "File a complaint with the CPRB. It's all we have to document police abuse, until a better world is created."

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From the February 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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