The San Rafael City Council has unanimously approved the creation of a new police oversight board in the wake of the bloody arrest of a man last year that sparked outcry from the community.

The Police Advisory and Accountability Committee (PAAC) will begin accepting applications next month. The committee will have room for seven people, four of which will represent different districts in the city.

As for the committee’s role, not even the council seemed clear on the specifics, something pointed out by a few councilmembers as well as people who spoke during public comment at the council’s June 5 meeting.

San Rafael Police Chief David Spiller supports the idea of the committee and spoke in front of the council.

“Our goal or focus on tonight’s item is transparency and accountability,” Spiller said. “Our goal is to cultivate trust between the Police Department and the community, to build relationships with the Police Department and the community and to seek improvement.”

Spiller sees the committee as a good way for his department to have an ear to the community and vice versa, though community members who spoke at the meeting had comments that ranged from skeptical to angry, expressing concern that the committee would be toothless “window dressing” with no real ability to police the police.

According to a staff report given to the council ahead of the meeting, the PAAC would be a diverse group of community members who would make recommendations on Police Department policies, practices and procedures.

The key word for some, however, is “recommendations.” For some community members, police oversight should give an independent body more actual influence and power over how the police operate, they said.

A toothless tiger

Megan Brizzolara addressed the council and said she had recently served on the Novato Police Advisory and Review Board and that it had “no power.”

“It was absolutely controlled,” she said. “Even the agendas are controlled by the city manager. We never saw complaints, we never reviewed complaints … I’m just hoping you’re not reproducing this in San Rafael.”

Brizzolara and several other speakers made reference to the “People’s Plan,” an approach proposed by the Marin Justice League — a group created after the violent arrest of Jimenez Lopez in the Canal last year — that is “designed and proposed by a multiracial group of local community residents and leaders, many of whom have lived experiences with San Rafael Police Department’s law enforcement system and its abusive practices,” according to a letter from Lisa Scarsella to the council.

At the root of people’s concerns about the Police Department is an altercation that happened between officers and Lopez last July. The whole interaction was captured on a police bodycam.

On the video, Lopez, a day laborer, can be seen on an industrial side street in the Canal District of San Rafael sitting on the curb with two of his friends. They are drinking beer.

A bloodied Jimenez Lopez sits in the back of a patrol car as Officer Daisy Mazariegos stands nearby in a framegrab from bodycam video taken during a July 27, 2022, altercation between Lopez and San Rafael Police officers that has sparked community outrage and stirred calls for creation of a police oversight commission. (Image via HappenJustNow/YouTube)

Officer Daisy Mazariegos asks the men what they are doing and they respond, “nothing.” Mazariegos points out that there are open containers of beer and asks to see one man’s identification. At that point, Officer Brandon Nail arrives. As the man stands up, seemingly to get his ID from his pants, Nail can be heard yelling, “Hey, sit the f— down!” Mazariegos again asks to see his ID and he says he can’t get it unless he stands up. As he goes to do so, Mazariegos tells him to sit down and then Nail forces him to the ground, punches him in the nose and pushes his face into the asphalt.

As the man is taken to the squad car, his face bright red with blood, he can be heard saying “I didn’t do anything.”

Lopez is currently suing the city, alleging excessive force, unreasonable search and seizure, and negligence.

‘We will examine our behaviors’

At the time, Spiller released an open letter to the community about the altercation, for which he took full responsibility, saying that his department would be conducting an investigation into it.

“I am both personally and professionally concerned about this incident and how it impacts the trust our department has worked hard to build in this community,” reads the letter. “I want to assure all members of the San Rafael community that not only is this incident being critically examined, but we will examine our behaviors, including that of our leadership, and for those department members that have fallen short, they will be held accountable.”

A several-months-long internal investigation into the arrest of Lopez was completed but has been kept under wraps by the city.

“I am both personally and professionally concerned about this incident and how it impacts the trust our department has worked hard to build in this community.”

San Rafael Police Chief David Spiller

SRPD also got heat last year after officers were discovered to have taken a man experiencing homelessness in San Rafael all the way to San Francisco, seemingly dumping him off in a neighborhood in June. The Police Department later apologized once footage capturing the event became public. The department also apologized to the first responders who were called to the scene after the man was reported as being in distress.

At the June 5 meeting, Spiller reiterated his commitment to having “difficult” conversations with the community.

“We may not always like what we hear, but the intention here is to raise the bar to make us better,” he said. “Law enforcement is a subordinate to the community, we’ve got to get it right.”

In addition to seven members and representatives from each district, Spiller said he would like to see at least one youth member on the committee. He also said he would like to see the first meeting of the newly formed group take place in the fall.

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.