San Diego’s Police Citizen Review Board Falls Short on Transparency, Accountability

Four years ago today (September 17, 2011) the Occupy movement began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in Wall Street. Like wildfire the movement that defined Us (the 99%) vs Them (the 1%) spread from city to city.

Three weeks later a large and exuberant crowd gathered in San Diego’s Children’s Park before marching defiantly to Civic Center Plaza, and Occupy San Diego was born.

And from that emerged a group of mostly “mature” women (of which I was one) who used our experience and energy to advance the movement long after the camps in cities throughout the nation had been aggressively dismantled by an organized police campaign. It was in that “dismantling” that many of the original members of Women Occupy San Diego (WOSD) came face to face with the ugly underbelly of SDPD.

On January 7, 2012, a dozen WOSD women had just completed some parody caroling (dubbed the Occupellas) at the Civic Center, when a group of Occupiers came marching back to the plaza from what had become a daily, spontaneous protest through downtown. Suddenly police were everywhere, dividing those of us in the plaza from those just arriving with a strip of yellow barrier tape.

It was purely random who ended up on either side of the tape, but it soon became clear that the folks on one side were getting arrested. There was a commotion and one of the women who just minutes earlier had been singing alongside me, was pushed to the ground by the police, roughly handcuffed and hauled away.

That was the day many of us stopped trusting the SDPD and started seeing every officer in a uniform as an enforcer of the 1%. Stephanie Jennings’ brutal arrest and imprisonment became the catalyst for WOSD to form a legal committee and to help file 17 complaints with the city regarding police misconduct and brutality during the Occupy protests.

In 2012, the San Diego Grand Jury released their recommendations for reforming the San Diego Citizen’s Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) – a 23-member, volunteer panel appointed by the mayor that reviews and evaluates complaints brought by members of the public against officers of the SDPD. The board also reviews and evaluates officer-involved shootings, all in-custody deaths, and all police actions that result in the death of a person regardless of whether a complaint has been filed.

In the Grand Jury report it was revealed that the CRB had been allowing personnel from the SDPD Internal Affairs Division to attend the board’s “closed” session meetings, and witnesses reported hearing Internal Affairs personnel tell the board they never want any dissenting votes going from the board to the Mayor or Chief of Police.

“Board leadership fosters a lack of decorum among its members, which is in direct violation of board bylaws. This has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation perpetuated by some board members. This contributes to a high turnover rate of prospective board members who are appointed to the board as vacancies occur. Board leadership is weak and lacks the will to control CRB meetings including the behavior of CRB members toward one another.”

In other words – complaints against SDPD officers were going nowhere. Sure enough, WOSD learned that the complaints they had filed had “disappeared”. They set out to reform the CRB, starting with attending CRB meetings, including testimonies of police brutality. One WOSD member applied for a vacancy on the board, but was told there were “too many applicants”.

SDPD has been dealing with misconduct scandals since 2011, when Anthony Avrevalos was convicted of felony and misdemeanor charges involving five women he pulled over in the Gaslamp Quarter while on duty. When new allegations of sexual misconduct by two more officers occurred in 2014, despite reform measures instituted by then Chief William Lansdowne, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) was requested to review San Diego’s systems for preventing and detecting misconduct. And Lansdowne resigned.

The COPS Office chose the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to conduct this review. PERF conducted three community meetings as part of their research, including one held on July 23, 2014, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego and Imperial Counties, the National Lawyers Guild, and Women Occupy San Diego.

On March 17, 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice finally released their report – with the mind-numbing title of the Critical Response Technical Assistance Review—Police Accountability: Findings and National Implications of an Assessment of the San Diego Police Department.  The report identifies a number of deficiencies in recruiting practices, supervision and training of officers, accountability systems, mechanisms for reviewing citizen complaints and leadership.

It focuses on 17 cases of misconduct over five years but doesn’t address the complaints filed by WOSD nor the blatantly suspicious shooting of Victor Ortega in a Mira Mesa alley in 2012 by San Diego police officer Jonathan McCarthy or any other instances of police brutality or murder or racism. That’s significant, considering the national outcry over racism and police assault that was occurring while this report was being prepared.

The review had only minor recommendations regarding the CRB:

Recommendation: The SDPD should provide the CRB with routine updates on the complaints received from the board, as well as a way for the CRB to track the status of these complaints. Currently, there is no formal tracking mechanism in place for the CRB to inquire about the status of a complaint once it has been forwarded to the police department’s IAU. When a community member files a complaint through the CRB, that complaint is sent to IA. The CRB in collaboration with IA should develop a database specific to the complaints that are sent by community members directly to the CRB. This database could be used by the SDPD and CRB to monitor case progress and outcomes. While PERF heard differing opinions regarding the level of cooperation from IA, it is recommended that the processing and tracking of all complaint cases be as transparent as possible.

WOSD and a coalition of other organizations, including: ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Black and Brown Lives Matter, Black Student Justice Coalition, National Lawyers Guild, and United Against Police Terror, are hoping changes can be made to the CRB that would model the San Diego County Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB). Reforms suggested by this coalition, that would go a long way toward transforming the CRB into an effective and transparent community oversight entity, are:

  • Independent investigators and subpoena power;
  • CRB handling of all intake, tracking and review of complaints rather than SDPD Internal Affairs;
  • Changing the name to Community Review Board so anyone can file a complaint, and
  • Having 2 board members appointed by each of the 9 City Council representatives plus one by the Mayor,

WOSD is awaiting clarification from the City Attorney on the process for implementing a change – whether it can just be decided by the City Council or would require changes to the City Charter, which is currently being revamped for voter approval in the 2016 election. When WOSD presented their proposed reforms to the City Council Charter Review Committee, they referred their recommendations to the Committee on Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods.

That committee is meeting next Wednesday, September 23. At 1:00 PM at San Diego City Hall, 202 C St. 12th floor, City Council Committee Room. WOSD was surprised to learn they were not put on the agenda, and instead there will be a presentation by Sharmaine Moseley, the new executive director of the CRB. So WOSD will be using the public comment section to present their recommendations.

WOSD is hoping for a large turnout for this meeting, with people willing to cede their time to them so they can present their PowerPoint. It is suggested that supporters arrive early in order to complete the speaker request form to cede their time to WOSD.

Meanwhile, if you were not one of the hundreds of people who signed the WOSD petition for these reforms at Earth Faire last April, you can still add your name online here.

Any institution that investigates itself has an obvious conflict of interest. The tools to hold SDPD accountable are not working. The millions of dollars the City has agreed to pay in settlements for police misconduct are coming out of taxpayer’s pockets, either directly in legal costs and court awards or indirectly in insurance costs. SDPD has more than its share of bad apples and San Diegans have a right to an effective and fair process for community oversight of their law enforcement.

 

Originally published in San Diego Free Press

 

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