Oversight group praises Burbank police but says things could still be better
An independent audit of the Burbank Police Department praised the agency for its thorough internal review policies but said there was room for improvement.
The report primarily focused on 56 incidents that occurred in 2017 including 19 instances where officers used force, 29 misconduct investigations and six vehicle pursuits. It also looked at the department’s email practices and an officer-involved fatality in 2016 where a man died after a Taser was used on him.
It’s the sixth report on the department from the Office of Independent Review Group, an oversight organization brought in by the department and city in 2012 after being plagued by allegations of civil-rights violations including racial discrimination, sexual harassment and police brutality.
During a joint meeting of the City Council and Police Commission on March 5, Michael Gennaco, a consultant with the Office of Independent Review, said other cities in the Los Angeles and Oakland areas had oversight forced upon them after being investigated by the Department of Justice.
“That’s not the case in this community. This community got ahead of that kind of intervention,” he said.
Out of the 21 recommendations made to the local police department, five of them stemmed from the Oct. 4, 2016, death of Thomas Binkley. The 66-year-old died after getting into a fight with Burbank police officers that resulted in a Taser being used on him.
According to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, Binkley died from a combination of heart disease and “electrical-conduction-device use.”
The Office of Independent Review found that the officer who fired the Taser at Binkley activated the device twice. The first time the device went on for five seconds, and the second activation lasted for 23 seconds.
The department’s policy regarding Tasers is to have them be activated in five-second cycles, according to the audit.
“[The Burbank Police Department] uncharacteristically did not conduct a robust factual examination of the decision-making by the officer that resulted in the 23-second activation,” according to the report. “Instead, in its closing memorandum, the department found the Taser use to be in policy without any documented analysis.”
The audit recommended the department should have supervisors focus on the length and number of times a Taser is used by an officer. It also suggested the department should refer any instances where an officer deploys a Taser for longer than five seconds or activates it more than twice to the agency’s Critical Incident Review Board.
In its response to the recommendations, department officials said all Taser uses are already reviewed by the review board and that it’s “evaluated and reconciled” with the local police department’s policy. Officials added that after a Taser has been used, its data, including information like how long it was used each time, is downloaded and analyzed.
Out of the 29 misconduct investigations the audit reviewed, 16 involved supervisors as the subjects of the allegations, three dealt with racial bias, while the rest were randomly chosen. The audit report noted that the number of misconduct investigations they looked at was about half of what Burbank police received for the year.
While the Office of Independent Review praised the department’s discipline process for its effectiveness, there were some disagreements over its approach. One such disagreement is the use of “exonerated” as too broad a term when clearing an officer of a misconduct allegation.
The term is used by the department for charges that are resolved where “the alleged act occurred but that the act was justified, lawful or proper,” according to the report.
In one investigation, two officers reported that a third officer was overly aggressive in arresting a suspect and that he used unnecessary physical contact. The third officer was exonerated for his actions by the department while the two other officers were commended for coming forward, according to the report.
The report suggests using a term like “not sustained” when clearing officers and reserving “exonerated” for when it’s undisputedly clear that an officer acted appropriately and within department policy.
Department officials said they will review their use of “exonerated” and see if there is a more appropriate term to use instead. Officials also said the department will review all of its definitions to ensure they are consistent with “law enforcement’s best practices.”
Overall, the Office of Independent Review commended the department for its willingness to be audited and consider its recommendations.
“It shows not only a refreshing lack of resistance or defensiveness when it comes to outside viewpoints but also a real commitment to searching as a model agency in the region,” the report stated.
The full report and the department’s responses can be found on the Burbank police website.