SHOUTS AND MURMURS: I understand that speaking truth to power has become all the rage, but can you just say it and not spray it? Nice people don’t change the world, or so I’ve been told; they don’t win the ribbons for coming in first. But in my book, truth — like intelligence — can be a much overrated virtue. Regardless, manners matter. It’s not about being good for goodness sake; it’s about being effective. I say this in response to the inaugural “Speaking Truth to Power Hour” hosted by the Santa Barbara City Council — at the instigation of Mayor Helene Schneider — Tuesday evening. The idea is to have Police Chief Cam Sanchez show up at council meetings once a month to explain, in public, just what the heck is happening at the Police Department and answer question raised by councilmembers or members of the public. The mere fact that these sessions — a far cry from the police-review commissions that other cities have — are happening at all is nothing short of historic. The department has been the subject of intense and repeated public controversy, and questions need to be asked. An alleged drunk driver gets beat down by a cop in Gelson’s parking lot for resisting arrest. Some witnesses are horrified and have alleged police brutality; others contend the guy was resisting arrest, a charge District Attorney Joyce Dudley very conspicuously declined to file. Sanchez — who earlier this year was actively competing for a job with the City of San Bernardino without notifying his bosses first and after telling his own troops he was staying put — responded by holding a press conference to defend his officer’s use of force, and releasing the cop-car camcorder video of the incident, an act the District Attorney could only say that she did not “condone.” And even though gang violence is down, the chief — in conjunction with the DA and the city attorney — has decided to pursue a gang injunction without holding one single solitary public hearing on the matter. Again, what gives?
I’d give the mayor an A for her idea, but when it came to execution, the thing was a noisy mess. Some of that was inevitable; after all, Kate Smith and Peter Lance were involved. Both Smith and Lance had a lot to say and would not be denied, no matter how many times the mayor interjected, “Mr. Lance. Mr. Lance. Mr. Lance …” or turned off his microphone, or recessed the meeting and walked out of the room. Smith is a certified genius even more courageous than she is smart. But in her fevered grandiosity, she undermines her cause — the school-to-prison pipeline — every time she opens her mouth. Lance has written the endless series of exposés — each one War and Peace-length — in the News-Press on how he was wrongfully arrested last New Year’s Eve for driving under the influence by a rogue cop, Kasi Beutel. While I found the series unbalanced and unhinged, I have to admit Lance did raise what appeared to be some troubling questions that — now that Judge Brian Hill ruled that cops weren’t justified in stopping Lance in the first place — will never be answered. In person, Lance speaks the way he writes. By that I mean over you, around you, and under you simultaneously. And always louder. Amazingly, he never stops to take a breath. It’s not just because Lance is from New York, as some have suggested; it’s because he’s a bully. I say that because he’s threatened to sue me on several occasions for, among other offenses, writing he’d been arrested for “drunk driving,” rather than the more legally precise term, “under the influence.” More bothersome, he also threatened to sue former Independent intern Rebecca Robbins, who’d mentioned at the end of an article — lopsided in Lance’s favor — that one of his expert witnesses had been the subject of professional misconduct allegations and litigation. Like I say, Lance has raised some significant questions. But the more he spoke — and spoke and spoke and spoke — Tuesday night, the less I cared. Far more impressive in their silence were the reformed and retired gang members in attendance now opposing the proposed gang injunction. Far more unsettling was the testimony of John Hunter, who looked very much the John Q. Public model citizen, who is still reeling from having witnessed the Gelson’s parking-lot incident. To be fair, Mayor Schneider was responsible for some of the onslaught, having delayed the Truth-to-Power show by re-scrambling the council agenda. Next time, schedule it for 6 p.m.
The chief gave a nice presentation about all the cool stuff his department is doing for economically disadvantaged kids and the expanded restorative policing efforts the department is now undertaking. But it was Councilmember Dale Francisco who asked the best questions, wondering whether the chief had investigated any of the claims Lance had raised. It turns out City Attorney Steve Wiley and City Administrator Jim Armstrong had hired the Sintra Group — a couple of ex-cops from Ventura now running a private investigation firm — to look into the claims made against officer Beutel. A draft of that report has been submitted, and Wiley said he’ll be sending it on to the councilmembers soon. It will not, however, be made public. (Lance repeatedly doubted how solid the report could be, given that he’d never been contacted.) To do so, he claimed, would violate all kinds of privacy rules governing all workers in general and cops, in particular. But Wiley — who personified power speaking to truth — was uncommonly passionate in his defense of Sanchez. Sanchez, Wiley said, was the most “no-nonsense” of all the chiefs he’d worked with since 1983 when it came to weeding out bad cops and not tolerating officer misconduct. Wiley went so far as to say he was “proud” to advise the department. That report, he predicted, will become the subject of a legal action he expects Lance to file. Beutel, who reportedly wanted to clear her much besmirched name, might be moved to release it. But in the meantime, the fact that she’s back on the job and an officer in good standing with the department might suggest something about its findings.
The meeting was a good start and perhaps even a nice try. Next time, people would be well advised to remember jokes don’t get funnier the more you repeat them and the English language has yet to get more understandable by speaking it louder. Lastly, there’s a big difference between speaking truth to power and just speaking noise.