WP4BL: Torrance Is in Dire Need of a Civilian Oversight Commission
In this op-ed, members of White People 4 Black Lives detail Torrance Police Department’s racist history and argue how to combat it.
For three years now, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles has maintained the demand that Torrance City Council must establish an independent civilian oversight commission for the Torrance Police Department. This demand echoes an order issued in 2018 by a California grand jury, which the council has continuously failed to heed.
According to the Council on Criminal Justice, civilian oversight commissions “are intended to give voice to community members and enhance transparency and accountability through an independent review and investigation of excessive-force cases and public complaints of police misconduct.” Ideally, civilians with no direct ties to law enforcement will appropriately prioritize the needs and concerns of local communities, leading to more just outcomes. The results of a lack of independent civilian oversight can be seen in the ongoing incidents of brutality and racism by Torrance police officers.
For many residents, seeing Torrance streets swarming with police vehicles serves as a chilling reminder that TPD, whose officers wield the most power in the community, is corrupted by its toxic culture of elitism. This pervasive bias targets and endangers our most marginalized communities. Tellingly, TPD is accountable to no one and intends to keep it that way.
As BLM-LA continues to call for an independent civilian oversight commission at Torrance City Council meetings, Torrance police remain a white supremacist threat to the city. A Los Angeles Times exposé from December 2021 revealed a list of horrors committed by Torrance police. In August 2021, two Torrance officers, Cody Weldin and Christopher Tomsic, vandalized an impounded vehicle, painting a swastika on it. An investigation of the incident has since revealed that 30 officers have engaged in sending and receiving racist, homophobic, and antisemitic text messages in a group thread going back as far as 2018; these included an image of several Black men being lynched with the caption “hanging with the homies,” as well as jokes about “gassing” Jewish people and assaulting LGBTQ+ people.
As of December 2021, the Los Angeles public defender’s office has around 100 ongoing cases involving Torrance officers named in the texting accusations. Several of the officers have been involved in use-of-force incidents dating back as far as 2013. The text scandal has led to federal charges being filed against Torrance Police Department, and the department is also under independent investigation by the state Department of Justice. These are just the most recent accounts of police misconduct in a city that was once, and for many still is, a sundown town.
The Torrance City Council have made it abundantly clear that they are unwilling to accept the responsibility of holding racist, murderous officers accountable. The call from BLM-LA for a civilian oversight commission was initiated in response to the murder of Christopher De’Andre Mitchell, a young Black man who was shot and killed by TPD Officers Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon within 15 seconds of their arrival on the scene. Anthony Chavez is also responsible for the killing of Michael David Lopez, as are Officers Christopher Tomsic, Joshua Satterfield, Anthony Fontanez, and Blake Williams. All of these officers are involved in the racist messaging scandal.
The City Council, headed by Mayor Patrick Furey, has responded to this ongoing demand with increasing hostility. Since BLM-LA and their allies began speaking out at meetings, the council has implemented increasingly stringent and arbitrary rules of conduct, such as being barred from carrying water bottles into the meeting chambers and even clapping. The council has violently escalated on multiple occasions, ordering police officers in riot gear to force protesters out of meetings for “disruption,” injuring some protesters in the process. These aggressions specifically targeted Black protesters who, along with their allies, were outnumbered by police.
Since transitioning to virtual meetings, the council has pared down the time allotted for public comment from an hour to two 15-minute sessions, severely limiting the opportunity for any comment from the public at all. Additionally, in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Christopher De’Andre Mitchell, while his family and organizers were demanding justice, the city gave raises and awards to the officers who killed Christopher and others. The City Council is clearly unfit to deal with matters of police accountability — yet another reason why Torrance needs a civilian oversight commission to deal with such matters.
Now the Torrance Police Department has established the Chief’s Advisory Board. Serving under the police chief, this board is part of the Torrance Police Department itself. A press release issued on January 13 by the department claims that the Chief’s Advisory Board will function to “share community concerns and increase public trust”; however, unlike independent civilian oversight, the board will have no real power or incentive to hold police accountable for wrongdoing. It seems that this advisory board is the city’s idea of an acceptable stand-in for civilian oversight, but a board beholden to Torrance police can never be an appropriate alternative to an independent commission with no direct police ties. The Chief’s Advisory Board will ultimately result in more money and more authority for Torrance police while maintaining a void of accountability.
On March 2, 2022, the Torrance Employee Relations and Public Safety Committee reviewed an item to consider conducting a survey of Torrance residents as to whether they would like for an independent civilian oversight commission to be created for the city’s police. The committee — run by City Councilmembers Sharon Kalani, Heidi Ann Ashcraft, and George Chen — opted to take the item to the City Council. On March 15, the City Council voted not to conduct the survey. Their decision was based on the unfounded assertion that the Chief’s Advisory Board and the implementation of SB2, the Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act (both of which directly involve law enforcement), provided sufficient oversight. This, despite every public comment on the item but one being in favor of the survey and the creation of a civilian oversight commission.
There can be no justice without accountability. Even those who believe that police exist to protect and serve the populace should be able to get on board with holding police accountable when they harm and kill our community members and clearly demonstrate bias. We all want safety in our community, and that means we must hold all parties who do harm accountable, including police.
This piece was written as a collaborative effort by members of White People 4 Black Lives. WP4BL is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice. WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. Visit www.awarela.org and follow us @wp4bl.