Fresno is fortunate to have Oliver Baines heading its police reform commission.
He has the temperament, brainpower, and experience to lead a group with divergent personalities (and expectations) in a successful effort. Most important: He knows what’s at stake because he’s lived it.
“I think this is something that we’re all going to be proud of,” Baines says. “We’re trying to seize the moment at this unique inflection point. By aligning our policing philosophy with the community’s needs, we can come up with a policing model that is better for everyone — including police officers.”
That inflection point, of course, is the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Polling indicates that Americans across party lines want changes in policing tactics. And, judging by City Hall’s swift creation of the commission, as well as the peaceful BLM protests here, there is a mandate for police reform in Fresno, too.
A Resume Perfect for the Job
Looking at Baines’ resume suggests that he has been on the path to this moment — and this assignment — much of his life.
Raised in Southern California, he came to Fresno State to study criminal justice and play football. After graduation, he worked 11 years for the Fresno Police Department. He’s faced life-or-death situations. But Baines also knows what it feels like to be profiled by police and pulled over for DWB — driving while black. And, as an eight-year city councilman representing southwest Fresno, he has learned how to shape and move policy across the goal line.
“Oliver is the right man at the right time,” says Fresno Mayor Lee Brand. “I fully expect the commission to come up with something that is transformational for Fresno and do it quickly. What we don’t need is another report gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. We need something we can get going right now.”
As I see it, the Fresno Police Department does a lot of things well. Its ranks overwhelming are filled with outstanding officers who report to work motivated to serve and protect our community. But within those ranks are a handful of officers with warrior mentalities who profile residents, needlessly escalate situations, and are quick to use deadly force.
One of the commission’s most important assignments should be coming up with an oversight system that will result in the quick identification and termination of bad officers.
Making the Shift to Community Policing
The commission’s big lift, Baines says, will be on moving the department’s focus from crime suppression to community policing.
“When you begin to align policing philosophy with the community’s values, the question of over-policing vs. under-policing balances out,” he says. “This shift is not going to happen because we write a policy or announce a program. A lot of the work will involve changing the culture.
“Using (community policing) history as a guide, good officers do want a culture shift. It’s a relief not just to the community but policing agencies, as well.”
What could community policing look like in Fresno?
You could see the end of specialty units and the return of those officers to patrol. Walking beats could be restored in some areas of town. And, part of an officer’s evaluation would be the ability to build community relationships.
Down the line, there might be discussions on better ways of handling calls involving people with mental illness, such as using specially trained unarmed mental-health experts.
Supporting the Mental Health of Officers
As Baines points out, reform is a two-way street. Essential to strengthening the community-police department bond is better support for police officers.
“Fresno’s next Chief of Police must be able to lead the department into a new era of policing and implement the recommendations coming from the Police Reform Commission through the City Council and Executive Committee.” — Fresno Mayor Lee Brand
“We need to talk about the overall health of officers and make sure they are mentally healthy,” Baines says. “People only call the cops when there is a problem, and they are always seeing people at their worst. They see so much trauma and not enough is done to support them.”
Search for New Police Chief Underway
Brand’s national search to replace the retiring Andy Hall as police chief, which was announced at his State of the City address, must culminate in hiring a man or woman with the expertise to deliver on community policing. On Wednesday, Brand publicly committed to that goal.
“The City is looking for a leader with a thorough understanding of community policing and a track record of working well with diverse populations,” the mayor said in a news release. “We are looking for someone with a reputation for building community trust and working collaboratively with the community. Fresno’s next Chief of Police must be able to lead the department into a new era of policing and implement the recommendations coming from the Police Reform Commission through the City Council and Executive Committee.”
With Baines steering the ship, I expect the commission’s recommendations to be meaningful and obtainable.