Monday, October 4, 2021

Eureka Council to Consider Vaccine Mandate, Police Oversight

Posted By on Mon, Oct 4, 2021 at 10:41 AM

click to enlarge EPD Chief Steve Watson speaks with protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd's 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • EPD Chief Steve Watson speaks with protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd's 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

The Eureka City Council will consider tomorrow whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all city employees and mull increasing oversight of its police department.

In a staff report, Human Resources Director Will Folger writes that “clinical trials, scientific research and safety monitoring” have shown COVID-19 vaccines to be safe and the most effective method of preventing the virus’ spread or falling seriously ill if infected.

“This policy is intended to ensure the safety and well-being of city employees, the community members with whom city personnel interact and all residents of the city of Eureka by requiring all city personnel, including employees, contractors (who work at city worksites and facilities or interact with other city employees or members of the public in the performance of their duties on behalf of the city), volunteers and interns, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 subject to limited exceptions for bona-fide medical and religious reasons,” Folger’s report states.

If approved by the council, all city employees and contractors who have not yet done so would have to get at least one dose of the vaccine before Oct. 19 in order to continue working for the city and would have to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 23. Those who apply for exemptions but are denied would have to begin the vaccination process within 14 days of the city’s determination and become fully vaccinated within eight weeks.

Those who choose to leave the city’s employment rather than get vaccinated would have the option of returning — if vaccinated — at the same pay and vacation accrual rates at any point within the next six months, so long as a position is available.

New hires, meanwhile, will all have to be fully vaccinated as of Nov. 23.

According to the Humboldt County Public Health dashboard, more than 62 percent of the local population is now at least partially vaccinated, though it’s unknown what percentage of city employees and contractors are vaccinated at this point. The city’s staff report states that the city has met and conferred with the Eureka City Employees Association and the Eureka Police Officers Association and both “have accepted and support the policy as written.”

EPOA President Amber Cosetti said the city worked to address the union’s concerns — which she said mostly centered around making sure unvaccinated employees are given sufficient to voluntarily comply with the new ordinance and submit exemption applications if they choose.

As of a few weeks ago, about 63 percent of EPD employees were vaccinated, according to Chief Steve Watson. Nationwide, polls have indicated law enforcement vaccination rates have lagged behind those of the population as a whole, and some unions have pushed back strongly against mandates. COVID-19 contracted on the job, meanwhile, is the leading cause of line-of-duty law enforcement deaths nationwide in 2021, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. The nonprofit reported that, as of Sept. 29, there had been 316 line-of-duty-deaths of law enforcement officers across the nation in 2021. Of those, 198 were linked to COVID-19 contracted on the job. The second leading cause of death — gunfire — was responsible for 43 line-of-duty deaths.

Contacted by the Journal, Watson said he believes in the vaccines but declined to take an official position on the proposed ordinance.

“I strongly believe in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and the need for holistic public safety, and I strongly encourage those that can to get vaccinated — if not for themselves then for the safety of others around them,” he said.

In other matters, the council is slated to give staff direction on a proposed reworking of the city’s Citizens Advisory Board for EPD.

The board’s roots stretch back to 2015, when former Chief Andrew Mills launched a Chief’s Advisory Panel, an informal group whose members were appointed by Mills and offered feedback on EPD policies and internal reviews. That panel was turned into a Citizens Advisory Board last year, with members appointed by the mayor and meetings held publicly and governed by the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act. And if it wasn’t evident in the name itself, the ordinance made very clear the board was to act solely in an advisory capacity.

“The board acts as an advisory body to the chief of police,” the ordinance lists as the board’s first charge under its “powers and duties” section. “Recommendations made by the board are not binding on the chief.”

Under the current ordinance, the chief of police can refer matters to the board for input and the board acts as a “liaison between the community” and EPD. The board can review department policies and programs, as well as “significant community issues relating to the performance or duties of the police department.” And it can review completed investigations of complaints filed against members of the department, with access to confidential departmental files, and it can review significant uses of force by officers. The two things the ordinance requires of the board are an annual report to the city council and that it “immediately forward any and all personnel complaints received from the public to the chief of police for investigation.”

The ordinance also makes very clear that the board is to work strictly in an advisory capacity.

“This board will not function in any fashion as a police oversight and review board, or adjudicate, or make any attempt to adjudicate, individual citizen complains against individual police officers or impose, or attempt to impose, disciplinary action,” the ordinance states.

The new draft ordinance that the council will discuss tomorrow represents a departure from that, rebranding the board as an “oversight” body, though it’s still unclear exactly how much power the board would have under the proposal.

The new ordinance would see the city hire an “independent police auditor,” who would work under the supervision of the city manager and conduct audits with input and recommendations from the board. The board would then use these audits and the input of the auditor to review EPD policies, training (with a particular emphasis on de-escalation and bias), and misconduct complaint investigations. It would also evaluate the auditor in an annual report to the city manager and council.

But the draft ordinance stops well short of giving the board the kinds of oversight powers in place in some other jurisdictions, like the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence, conduct its own investigations and mete out disciplinary action. And it’s also unclear if the auditor would have any of these powers or would simply be tasked with reviewing EPD’s own internal investigative reports.

City Manager Miles Slattery said in an email to the Journal that the draft ordinance is “very preliminary,” which is why it’s coming forward as a discussion item to get additional direction from the council. The idea, Slattery said, is the city would issue a request for proposals for the auditor position through his office down the line, though that too is dependent on further council input. He said he’s been looking at a contract the city of Palo Alto has with an outside police auditing firm as an example.

Under that contract, the city paid OIR Group, a company specializing in “independent police oversight and review,” $75,000 for three years of services, which included reviewing all police department investigations of citizen complaints and officer Taser deployments, and twice annual written reports to the city manager and the city council. The contract also stipulates that prior to finalizing its report, the consultant would discuss any “significant identified problems and recommendations with the police department and the city manager” to solicit their responses and “attempt to reach a consensus as to solutions.”

The council is considering changes to its Citizens Advisory Board after Councilmember Kati Moulton brought the issue forward at its July 20 meeting, asking that it be put on the agenda for future discussion.

The council will meet at 6 p.m. tomorrow virtually. People can attend by clicking the Zoom link here or email comments to be considered at the meeting to cityclerk@ci.eureka.ca.gov by 4 p.m. tomorrow. View the full meeting agenda here.
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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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