A cellphone video that has gone viral shows a CHP officer pummeling a mentally ill African American woman who had been walking, barefooted, along Interstate 10 near downtown Los Angeles.
Community members have decried what appears to be excessive force by the officer, who can be seen repeatedly punching 51-year old Marlene Pinnock in the head as she lies on the ground. The CHP has vowed to carry out a thorough investigation.
At a news conference, California Highway Patrol's Assistant Chief Chris O'Quinn stated, "We are known as an agency that really polices itself."
Seriously? If ever an incident called for independent oversight, this one is it. Law enforcement officers wield enormous power over us. Independent civilian oversight provides a check on that power.
Today, the value of civilian oversight for law enforcement is well-settled. Fifteen countries, ranging from South Africa to Israel to Belgium, utilize civilian oversight. And 200 cities and counties across this nation have oversight agencies, including Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Jose, where the Office of the Independent Police Auditor has been in existence for 21 years.
Still, there are many law enforcement agencies that have no accountability to the public. The FBI is one of them.
Since 1993, every single one of the FBI's shootings was deemed justified by the FBI. Among the 289 deliberate shootings, there were 70 fatalities and 80 wounded. Not one FBI agent was disciplined, except for five letters of censure, veritable slaps on the wrists.
Even when the FBI paid a shooting victim over $1 million, the agency's internal review found that the agent did not use excessive force.
The California Highway Patrol is the largest state police agency in the United States, with more than 7,500 sworn officers. It has patrol jurisdiction over California highways and acts as the state police. CHP officers enforce traffic laws on public roads anywhere in the state and possess full law enforcement authority to enforce all state laws.
When the conduct of CHP officers is called into question, internal inquiries into the allegations are not subject to any form of independent oversight. Rather, these allegations are handled exclusively by their Internal Affairs Unit, which is staffed by CHP officers.
The 1988 case of Officer Craig Peyer, a six-year veteran of the CHP, is a stunning example of why police policing themselves without independent oversight doesn't work. Peyer stopped 20-year old Cara Knott for a traffic violation. When she refused the officer's sexual advances, he bludgeoned her with his flashlight, strangled her and threw her body over a bridge.
It was subsequently revealed by the media that numerous young women had been subjected to similar advances from Peyer, all of whom filed complaints with the CHP's Internal Affairs Unit. Their complaints were dismissed by the CHP, however, because of Peyer's reputation within the department.
With independent oversight, an officer's reputation is never a consideration in a misconduct determination. Peyer was convicted of her murder and is serving a life sentence.
Perhaps today's CHP's Internal Affairs Unit conducts objective and thorough investigations of its fellow officers. But that isn't the point. It is the independence of the oversight agency that gives the investigations credibility and builds trust. Credibility and public trust fall by the wayside when the police police themselves without independent oversight.
In the wake of the Marlene Pinnock incident, we must demand that the California Legislature mandate an independent civilian oversight agency for the CHP. In this way, something very good may come of something very bad.
LaDoris Cordell is San Jose's independent police auditor and a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge. She wrote this for this newspaper.