Fresno Unmasked: Police Reform Reveals Loyalties

[This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Community Alliance.]

By Kevin Hall

(Editor’s note: As of our deadline, the Fresno Police Reform Commission was next scheduled to meet on August 10.)

Like it or not, Fresno is about to take a deep dive into community policing. Count among those who don’t like it the Fresno Police Officers Association (FPOA) and a bevy of right-wing interests. Their tactics include a smear campaign against one advocate, legal objections to necessary information requests, accusations of conflicts of interest and—as usual—playing the race card.

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Right-wing opponents of police reform have been using their private online platforms at GV Wire and SJV Sun and working through local media to attack advocate Sandra Celedon.

The union is furiously working both sides of the political aisle to block any change, and the FPOA president is said to have been caught on video, no surprise, in a recent public meeting displaying scorn and disrespectful behavior toward advocates.

More recently, interim Fresno police chief Andy Hall spuriously claimed in a July 16 release that crime is spiking due to coronavirus jail releases and said that politicians who support defunding police departments are partly to blame. This type of half-baked data is classic Fresno police chief behavior — as perfected by former chief Jerry Dyer — and is one of advocates’ main complaints as it is typically used to further racial stereotypes.

Hall then went full Dyer with his attack, falsely telling KSEE 24 News’ AJ Kato that same day, “We have some of our community leaders out there, some people who actually sit on the commission, that are advocating violence, and that should be a disqualifier if we’re going to truly look at police reform.”

Though not on the commission, the interim chief is throwing down some hard markers for others. This is a big blue wall of silence going up. Hall seeks to divert public attention from his department’s shocking record of violence against people of color, particularly Black men, as described in the ACLU’s 2017 report, “Reducing Officer-Involved Shootings in Fresno, CA,” and its failure to remove police officers who are repeat shooters.

Across the aisle, the FPOA has successfully peeled off the votes of at least a couple of Democrats on the commission, State Center Community College District Trustee Annalisa Perea and Fresno County Democratic Central Committee member Gail Gaston, who sided off against Celedon, too.

Both the chief and the union—which fought against Measure P under incoming mayor Jerry Dyer’s campaign lie that a parks tax would reduce police funding—must now face the harsh reality brought to life by smartphone recording after smartphone recording of police violence: Enough Whites now accept that what Black and Brown people have been saying for years is undeniably true. As a result, a significant majority public opinion now favors changes in police practices, tactics, funding and more.

Former two-term Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines, who practiced a version of community policing while on the city force and now heads the Police Reform Commission, is a firm disciple of the approach. He appears to have the full support of outgoing Mayor Lee Brand and a City Council majority, including Council President Miguel Arias, Baines’ successor in the District 3 seat covering West Fresno and downtown.

Brand, for his part, announced in his final state of the city speech on June 30 that he has launched a nationwide search for a new chief, pointing out that person will have to be versed in community policing and at working well with everyone.

Besides cops, this political alignment of moderates has also infuriated incoming mayor Dyer’s many backers in Fresno’s right-wing political circles, particularly the developers and conservative interests backing a pair of Web sites, Darius Assemi’s public relations effort known as GV Wire and the SJV Sun, a straight-up political operation guised as a nonprofit effort.

Rather than attack Brand, who has been drifting away from the pack’s more rabid caucus since he decided to serve only one term and make way for retiring police chief Dyer, they’ve resorted to yelping like the cowardly cartoon villains in a Disney hyena pack. Their target for harassment: advocates serving on the commission.

It began on May 29 when the Sun’s Daniel Gliglitch posted a snarky criticism of a personal tweet by commission member Sandra Celedon in which she voiced support for the protestors burning down a Minneapolis precinct following the murder of George Floyd. “Burn it down, #BlackLivesMatter. No Justice, No Peace. Enough is enough,” she wrote.

This language violates the Right’s perennial, racist, misogynistic double-standard for behavior by women and minorities—particularly minority women—that they must think and act at all times in a manner these conservative White men deem appropriate. It’s a master-servant mind-set that comes easily to them.

Those first three words, in their minds, disqualify Celedon completely from serving on the commission. Yet, these right wingers are quick to hypocritically embrace America’s history of similarly rebellious language when it suits their needs.

But as Stephen Thrasher wrote on May 30 of the Minneapolis protest in Slate magazine, “You can agree with or disagree with the action. But you cannot deny that there is a logic in targeting a police station after the police have lynched a man in broad daylight, on video.

“It’s an attempt to create a different order in the society…The uprising we’ve seen this week is speaking to the American police state in its own language.”

As for the cops on the commission, it’s a submit-and-obey mind-set that becomes unglued at the sight of protests such as the one in Minneapolis. The original tools for property protection and the capture of people fleeing enslavement, modern-day police forces, including Fresno’s, are often described by reform advocates and abolitionists as having an “occupier” mind-set.

In the occupier’s world, no one would get hurt if everyone would just immediately and completely surrender all of their civil and human rights in every encounter with police. Anything short of that and police violence can be justified in their book.

On June 30, Sun blogger Alex Tavlian attacked Celedon’s by-then-month-old tweet and accused “Celedon’s Building Healthy Communities or other allied organizations—including Fresno Barrios Unidos or Cultiva La Salud” as being involved in the reform effort in hopes of steering public funds to their nonprofit organizations, accusing them of “wanton self-interest.” He conveniently neglects to consider if the cops serving on the commission have any self-interest in preserving the status quo.

Not quite finished, Tavlian then played the race card like a new poker player with his first flush—badly—writing nonsensically, “One group that slowly lost its foothold in the Commission as of Monday was Fresno’s African-American community, arguably the genesis point for the Commission’s formation due to the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement.”

The self-serving Tavlian conveniently ignores, perhaps cannot see, the Black leaders and academics at the core of this committee, several with deep backgrounds in criminal justice, including Baines, plus:

  • Committee consultant Lee Brown, a 1960 graduate of Fresno State and perhaps the school’s most distinguished graduate, regarded internationally as the father of community policing;
  • Dr. Joseph Jones, president of Fresno Pacific University with a Ph.D. in criminology;
  • Dr. James Pitts, another Ph.D. in criminology and now a professor at Fresno State;
  • Community organizer Aaron Foster of Advance Peace;
  • Criminal justice advocate and youth organizer Marcel Woodruff with Faith in the Valley; and
  • D’Angelique Jackson, president of the Fresno State NAACP Chapter.

Tavlian, it should be pointed out, is the executive director of the newly formed nonprofit Valley Future Foundation dedicated to “quality local news.” Established last year, it’s the type of shell that allows right-wing backers to avoid taxes through donor-advised contributions to causes they support and foundations they create. Favored by right-wing interests across the nation, it is a useful tool for pushing public policy, particularly in this era of shrinking media.

Another Zoom-warped face joined the barking at the commission’s July 7 meeting when Assemi’s blogger at GV Wire, David Taub, tried to get a reaction out of the unflappable Celedon, again bringing up the tweet; SJV Sun immediately echoed with a post of its own. Fellow commissioner, Fresno Unified School District Trustee Veva Islas, accurately described Taub’s query as “asinine.”

Rounding out the trio of scavengers was Lincoln Club head Michael Der Manouel Jr. with his daily commentary on KMJ hate-radio on July 9. He tweeted in advance of his daily diatribe his objection to Celedon’s selection as vice chair and falsely claimed that “she unapologetically advocated for the burning down of police precincts in Minneapolis on May 28. She should be removed altogether.”

Across the aisle, the FPOA has successfully peeled off the votes of at least a couple of Democrats on the commission, State Center Community College District Trustee Annalisa Perea and Fresno County Democratic Central Committee member Gail Gaston, who sided off against Celedon, too. In the commission vote for a vice chair (Baines was appointed as chair), Gaston nominated Fresno deputy police chief Michael Reid and was joined by Perea in the losing vote, which the Baines-backed Celedon won in a landslide.

The issue came up yet again nearly two months after the tweet, this time on the local TV leg of right-wing media, conservative political talk show host Alexan Balekian’s Sunday Morning Matters on KSEE 24. Unable to pronounce “Celedon” and calling it a “new controversy,” Balekian first asked Fresno City Council member Esmeralda Soria and then Perea if they thought Celedon should explain her tweet and step down as vice chair. Soria offered a vigorous defense of Celedon and criticized the right wing for its hypocrisy and attack on a woman of color.

Perea, on the other hand, worked to distance herself from Celedon, going so far as to  misrepresent the commission’s lack of interest in the nonissue as disagreement and herself as speaking on its behalf, despite the popular support Celedon received in the vice chair vote.

Other Democrats afraid or simply unwilling to cross the FPOA surfaced in great numbers at the July 1 FCDCC meeting. As reported by Brianna Calix in the Fresno Bee:

Emily Cameron, elected to the Democratic Central Committee in March, on Wednesday night made two motions: that the local Democratic Party refuse all monetary and non-monetary donations from law enforcement unions, associations, organizations and political action committees; and that all Fresno County Democratic elected officials do the same, as well as refrain from promoting endorsements from law enforcement groups.

Gaston was there to argue against it and joined the majority in a vote to send it to a subcommittee. That group’s recommendation back to the body will be discussed at its Aug. 7 meeting, available online to all registered Democrats. Perea, along with Fresno City Council Member Nelson Esparza, missed the meeting, but their alternates voted for the delay.

This clash between old school Democratic Party politics and the surging progressive movement is playing out across the country. Police have traditionally been regarded as a top-tier endorsement, along with firefighters, nurses and teachers. In return, they expect protection.

As described by Tom Perkins in The Guardian, police unions’ political contributions and endorsements directly shape policy outcomes at city hall. Hamid Khan, director of Stop LAPD Spying, a grassroots anti-surveillance watchdog group, told him, “The power of their money runs very deep. [Local governments] have become rubber-stamp bodies in which police power is never challenged.”

Fresno Teachers Association PAC Chair and FCDCC member Jon Bath opposed Cameron, weakly explaining to Calix, “I think we need to stay in conversations with our brothers and sisters in blue.” Apparently those interactions are contingent upon financial transactions. Cameron has created a Web site, WhoTakesCopMoney, and reports the FCDCC itself has accepted more than $50,000 in the past two years from local and statewide police unions.

Money that Perea, Gaston, Bath and others want to keep raking in.

While their allies at the FPOA surely appreciate the effort, they’ve lawyered up now nonetheless in an attempt to challenge a Public Records Act request from committee members Mariah Thompson of the National Lawyers Guild and longtime mental health and victims’ rights advocate, the venerable Gloria Hernandez.

The two women seek specific information on police practices that the police specifically don’t want to share.

CPRC PRA: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-1kL6Y4tmYGtXeWc4rIi0BRWnyQEgEHO/view?usp=sharing

Letter to Holtzman: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1eSaspjo5QKHzray8AGfjSGBMWfbHpIq_/view?usp=sharing

FPOA President Todd Frazier reportedly reacted badly in a subcommittee meeting on the subject of police practices and tactics, at least until he was reminded the session was being recorded for posting on the city’s YouTube page. Let’s see if that ever happens.

Advocates are working for swift, dramatic changes in Fresno policing, and they should get a few now, but they’re also settling in for the long, grueling work of policy-making and implementation. They know the key to ending dangerous, systemic police practices and to gradually funding new alternatives will depend on the degree of public oversight and police department transparency that emerges from this effort.

The extreme degree of resistance by police and their allies, including their resorting to slanderous attacks on civic leaders, shows a department led by people unwilling to take criticism. Change won’t come easily to them.

Immediate wins such as full funding and, as important, autonomy for the policing alternative known as Advance Peace and a data-driven, transparent process for police department accountability with a permanent, community oversight committee in place will be major wins at this point. Many more can follow.

*****

Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate, coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org and can be contacted at sjvalleyclimate@gmail.com for presentations and information.

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