Hayward: Council moves along Wahab’s referral for third-party oversight of fatal police shootings

With frustrations from the family of the man slain by Hayward Police last November running high, the Hayward City Council unanimously, but cautiously, approved a referral asking city staff to prepare an independent investigation policy for instances when deadly force is used by its police officers. The proposal requested by Councilmember Aisha Wahab requires the item comes back to the council for discussion within the next six months.

If later approved by the council later this year, the first use of the policy would be reserved for an independent investigation of the Nov. 15 incident that led to the fatal shooting by Hayward police officers of 29-year-old Agustin Gonsalez, who had a history of mental illness and was believed to be holding a knife when police officers opened fire on him. Police body-camera video and an investigation by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office has cast doubt on whether Gonsalez had anything in his hand when he was approached by police. Last month, the Alameda County D.A.’s office, however, declined to prosecute the two officers, Phillip Wooley and Mike Clark, for criminal wrongdoing.

Although Tuesday’s vote was unanimous, the debate prior to it did not match the tenor of the result. Several members appeared apprehensive about the vote. One councilmember briefly protested whether Wahab could make an addition to the referral while it was being debated, and another councilmember appeared to be attempting to turn the audience against Wahab. Yet another said the referral was a “messy way” for making policy.

Councilmembers Francisco Zermeno and Al Mendall appeared unsure of how they would proceed and did not indicate how they would vote before noting the city has move forward with greater transparency of the police department, including the recently created Hayward Police Community Advisory Panel. The committee is made up of appointees selected by the police chief and mayor. State legislation is also pending regarding law enforcement issues, such as new rules for when officers can legally use deadly force. “Change is coming,” said Zermeno. In addition, Zermeno added that he believes the district attorney’s report is independent. “I trust the process and the system that allows cases to be investigated,” he said.

Mendall offered condolences to the family before adding, if he were in the shoes of the Gonsalez family, “I don’t think 50 investigations would be enough.” Karla Gonsalez later addressed Mendall’s comment, by adding, “Unfortunately nothing is enough, but you’re going to fight for it no matter what.”

Yet another instance of the growing rivalry between Councilmember Elisa Marquez and Wahab appeared in the public realm Tuesday night when Marquez appeared to suggest to the audience, which had repeatedly praised Wahab all night and at previous meetings, that with the referral, Wahab had not given them what she had promised a week ago. The referral presented Tuesday was only for a policy and would not satiate their wishes for a third-party investigation of Gonsalez’s death. The crowd did not respond, but later voiced uncertainty over the referral’s exact aim. Marquez then peered toward Wahab with a wide grin. Wahab responded with a quizzical look. Marquez, however, later seconded a motion in support of the referral after Wahab clarified that if the policy is later approved by the council, it would include an independent investigation of the Gonsalez case.

“You’re changing the referral. I don’t think you can do that,” Mendall briefly protested. His opinion was overruled by the city attorney. But with a second of the motion already in hand, Wahab abruptly called for the vote to be taken, a move that effectively ended the debate. “That’s a little rude, but okay,” Mendall told Wahab. Wahab later rescinded the call for the question and the discussion resumed.

Councilmember Mark Salinas told Wahab and the gathering inside council chambers that the referral for an independent investigation policy for deadly force by police was a “messy way” of making policy. In recent months, Salinas has voiced skepticism over the new referral system that was first suggested by Wahab earlier this year to bring greater transparency to council proceedings. A nondescript system for approving new agenda items had typically involved simple head nods from a majority of the council.

But once Salinas indicated he would support the referral, Mayor Barbara Halliday followed suit, likely giving cover to the other undecided councilmembers to join the likely majority. However, it is far from certain whether the council will be as supportive when the item returns for discussion some time before the end of this year. There are signs the city’s police union is already applying immense political pressure on the council that is likely to run unabated for the next six months.

>>Karla Gonsalez, mother of Agustin Gonsalez, addresses the council and police chief Tuesday night.

Tuesday’s lengthy and tense meeting followed a similar pattern that began last December as family, friends, and police accountability activists voiced strong displeasure with Hayward officials for not releasing information about the fatal shooting, along police body-camera footage of the incident. Calls for an independent investigation of the incident have also been consistent, and only intensified after the Alameda County District Attorney’s office declined to charge the two officers who fatally shot Gonsalez.

Nearly every month since the shooting, sometimes on more than one occasion, the Gonsalez family and activists have strongly criticized the handling of the incident with raw emotion, and, at times, anger and contempt toward the mayor, city manager, a number of councilmembers, and the police department, in general.

>>A police accountability activists, who was ejected from the council chambers by Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday reserves choice words for Hayward Police.

“I know you are tired of us, but we will not stop fighting,” Jessica Hernandez told the council Tuesday night that also included the family members of Oscar Grant, who was killed by BART police in 2009. An activist was later removed from the chambers after disrupting the meeting, but not before giving two police officers an earful. His diatribe could be heard inside the council chambers and briefly put the proceedings on pause.

Sniffles could be heard inside the council chambers as Jessica Aquino, the mother of Gonsalez’s two young children recounted the pain of telling her kids that their father had died last November. It was the first time Aquino had made an appearance before the council.

>>Jessica Aquino, mother of Agustin Gonsalez’s two children, describing to the City Council the moment she told her children that their father had been killed by police.

The family’s hope for justice was buoyed last week when Wahab indicated she would offer a council referral calling for an independent investigation of the Gonsalez case. Karla Gonsalez, Agustin’s mother, welcomed the referral, but expressed having no faith in law enforcement. Her husband, Augie Gonsalez, told the council, “You have a chance to make a change. There’s a lot of good Hayward police officers, but let’s get rid of the bad ones.” Augie Gonsalez’s father is a former Hayward police officer who once worked alongside Koller.

Note: A quote wrongly attributed to Jessica Aquino was removed.

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