’A Community Divided’ – the city responds

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The City Council was expected to approve responses to the findings of the Humboldt County Grand Jury today regarding police reforms at a noon Wednesday meeting. It was also set to renew the local coronavirus emergency and extend the emergency eviction protections that have been in effect since March.

‘A Community Divided’

On July 7, 2020, the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury released a report titled A Community Divided; The Ripples of a Homicide in Arcata, CA.

The report is viewable on the city’s website, along with responses by city staff, the City Council and the Arcata Police Department, which are up for approval and submission to the Presiding Judge of the Humboldt County Superior Court.

The Grand Jury reviewed circumstances surrounding the April 15, 2017 killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson, conducting interviews with relevant officials and poring over a vast morass of documents, including local media reports and the February National Police Foundation report on APD’s response. 

States the report, “During the course of our investigation, the Civil Grand Jury discovered widespread belief that the homicide of David Josiah Lawson and the ensuing investigation, if not racially motivated, was impacted by systemic racism.”

Like the National Police Foundation report from which it heavily draws, the Grand Jury report reflects a deeply detailed dive into the Lawson killing and its aftermath offering much for Arcatans to think about. But the focus of today’s meeting is the City Council, City Manager Karen Diemer and Police Chief Biran Ahearn’s responses to the report’s numerous findings and recommendations for reform.

Some of the findings and recommendations garnered no response, in that they involve matters under litigation [Lawson v. City of Arcata, et al, N.D. Case No. 4:18-cv-07238- TGR and Zoellner v. City of Arcata, et al, N.D. Case No. 3:18-cv-04471] or are part of the ongoing Lawson investigation. 

“The lawsuits will resolve many of the issues investigated by the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury, and the lawsuits are the appropriate legal vehicle for such a response. The respondent appreciates the hard work of the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury on this matter,” states the City Council. “On advice of legal counsel for the pending lawsuits, respondent cannot respond to this finding.”

Other Grand Jury reforms, say the city, have been enacted or are in the process, while one was rejected outright.

Recommendations for restructuring APD to bolster its ability to respond to major crime incidents, and to investigate them, were embraced by the city, pending council approval. So was a call for increased racial education, sensitivity and diversity.

“The current Arcata Chief of Police is focusing on strengthening community relationships, substantially increasing training, and diversifying the pool of officers and staff,” states the City Council. “He has also begun community policing and leadership development as part of the nationwide effort to reform policing.”

“The Arcata Police Department is committed to continue working with our community partners to develop meaningful and effective training that is consistent with community expectations,” states Ahearn. “APD, who has hired and promoted a diverse group of employees, will continue to engage with the community in many different platforms including Coffee With A Cop, community BBQ’s, charitable works, HSU campus engagement and at community events.”

APD is now utilizing the multi-agency Major Crimes Incident Team in large or complex crime scenes. States Ahearn: “The recommendation has been implemented. The Arcata Police Department formally signed the MCIT MOU on July 11, 2018. Recent requests for agency assistance include EPD’s Evidence Technician at a shooting scene (December 3, 2018,) HCSO’s Evidence Technician as well as CHP and HSUPD Patrol resources at a homicide scene (May 26, 2019) and CHP, HCSO and EPD subject matter experts at a major injury traffic collision scene (September 7, 2019.).”

Rejected as “not warranted” or “not reasonable” was a recommendation that biographies of APD officers be posted online, on gounds of invasion of privacy. “However, the City Council promotes community policing and strongly encourages all of our officers to actively engage in the community to get to know individuals and allow individuals to get to know them,” states the City Council response.  

“For personal safety reasons, to pro-actively identify APD personnel as peace officers would be detrimental to maintaining some degree of anonymity away from work that contributes towards a safer environment for APD personnel,” states Ahearn. “The degree to which Officers share with others their profession as peace officers must continue to be a personal choice.”

A call for creation of a Citizens Advisory Board to review police activity has the city pointing to its Public Safety Committee, which is partially fulfilling that role, and could expand its scope of activity. However, the committee is hobbled by resignations and having trouble fulfilling that challenging task.

“The current Arcata Chief of Police is focusing on strengthening community relationships, substantially increasing training, and diversifying the pool of officers and staff,” Diemer states. “He has also begun community policing and leadership development as part of the nationwide effort to reform policing”

Concludes Diemer, “I would like to acknowledge that the pending litigation that concerns the same homicide investigation that was reviewed by the Civil Grand Jury in this investigation made participation in this process challenging. I acknowledge the importance of continuing to seek justice for David Josiah Lawson and appreciate the work of the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury.”


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