Tomorrow is Michael Harris’s last day as Livermore’s Chief of Police, a role he has held for seven years.
He will leave the organization in better shape than when he found it. This assessment was made during a Rotary Club of Livermore meeting by Livermore City Manager Marc Roberts, the city’s top administrator who hired Harris.
The Livermore Police Department became more professional, transparent and community-oriented during Harris’s tenure. He oversaw the implementation of body-worn cameras and a strategic shift toward the area command model — a policing strategy that assigns officers and supervisors up the chain of command to specific areas of the city to help build relationships between police and the communities they serve.
The department is looking to bring on a mental health clinician to work with officers in the field and to train officers in crisis intervention. It hopes to recruit more qualified diverse candidates and provide more opportunities for career development, as well as physical and mental wellness programs for employees.
Harris said that he sees the role of police as guardians of the community, rather than as an occupying force. This enlightened view recognizes the fact that police officers serve at the consent of the governed — a far cry from an “us versus them” culture.
These are all encouraging indications of a culture that prioritizes continual review and improvement.
With the shift of leadership and the council’s pledge to lead a public discussion of the department spurred by the police killing of George Floyd, it’s critical not only for the city to perpetuate the work he’s done, but also for citizens to continue examining policies.
Take the City of Livermore’s contract with the Livermore Police Officers’ Association. It is even more protective of officers accused of misconduct than state law alone. The following incident raises questions.
Soon after Harris was hired as an outside candidate for the city’s police chief, he was forced to deal with a federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from an incident that took place before his arrival. The case was filed by a man who alleged he was a victim of misconduct with striking similarities to the brutality that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this year. Fortunately, the incident in Livermore was not fatal.
According to allegations in court documents, there were a series of escalations that resulted in an unarmed Latino man pinned to the ground by two officers with their knees pressing down on his neck and back. According to the complaint, the plaintiff’s hands were behind his back. Despite the fact that the man was not resisting and was restrained with his face forced into the pavement, he said he was pummeled by the officers and told “it will get worse” if he did not stop struggling and moving. Other officers who were on the scene did not oppose the actions. The restrained man complained that he could not breathe and begged the officer to stop, but they persisted with the control hold until his body went limp after a number of minutes.
The city paid $150,000 to settle the case. It also agreed to retrain all of its officers concerning their duty to intervene and stop other officers from using excessive force, and to report honestly excessive force when they saw it. The two officers remained on the city payroll for years, according to public records.
We do not know whether the 2013 use-of-force complaint was sustained or even investigated internally. The police department apparently destroyed the records before SB 1421 took effect in January 2019. SB 1421 requires “a state or local agency, as defined, to make public records available for inspection, subject to certain exceptions.”
There is no reason to believe the city broke any laws. However, the intent of SB 1421 was to “lift the veil of secrecy” and provide transparency and accountability that gives the public the right to obtain previously highly confidential police personnel records.
With the recruitment process for a new chief now underway and Capt. Jeramy Young serving as interim chief, it’s critical to continue our local push for advanced reform. Effective police management is now more important than ever. Labor negotiations between Livermore and its police union are set to begin soon, amid a pandemic, economic crisis and concern about inappropriate use of force. With the right approach, the next chief and the community will have the opportunity to implement ongoing change and improvement.