WOSD Commentary in U-T: Community oversight would help San Diego police build trust

By Anne Barron | 6 p.m. Sept. 24, 2015

The San Diego Police Department lags far behind other cities on accountability and transparency despite community demands. A San Diego State University study scored Los Angeles and Austin high on police department effectiveness while our city only registered six out of a possible 41 points. This is no surprise to residents who have suffered from the illegal actions of bad cops and unresponsive leadership.

More than 200 people have been killed at the hands of law-enforcement in the county, many unarmed and innocent. Hundreds more have been injured or illegally arrested. City settlements for illegal police actions are in the millions. City residents are now calling for a strong independent community review board to oversee and investigate complaints against officers.

Police officers are public servants with large discretionary powers and weapons. They must be held accountable to ensure their powers are not abused. In response to ongoing abuses, the Legislature of California has passed the Racial and Profiling Act to create a public state tracking system for local police complaints. Too many bad cops have evaded detection due to inefficient or nonexistent tracking systems.

The recent convictions of longtime officers underscore internal problems within the SDPD and the lack of effective oversight. Family and friends still mourn Victor Ortega, shot by Officer Jonathan McCarthy in the back of the head over three years ago. A police patrol beat and arrested a City Heights man for entering his family’s business last year. Women were sexually assaulted by police officers on duty; they had to file civil suits to receive justice. A member of Women Occupy San Diego was illegally arrested and mistreated at a concert outside City Hall; she also had to sue the city. The officers involved are still on the beat.

So what did the city’s main cop-watch shop do?

The Civilian Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) expressed its sympathy but could do little more because it has no power. It can only advise and recommend. The problem is that here in San Diego our Citizens Review Board doesn’t investigate complaints of police wrongdoing; the Police Department of Internal Affairs does. This is a blatant conflict of interest, one the CRB refuses to acknowledge.

How well does Internal Affairs police its own? It is hard to say since internal investigations are never made public. The City Heights man had to file a lawsuit, according to media reports, because Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and the city never “initiated any formal investigation or judicial proceedings by which to discipline the offending officers and/or bring them to justice.”

Building trust will take time. Police Chief Zimmerman took the first step when she requested a departmental audit by the U.S. Department of Justice. The resulting audit described many deficiencies in department recruiting practices, leadership, supervision and training, and mechanisms for reviewing citizen complaints and accountability. It recommended 40 actions to improve public safety.

An independent community review board, a board that has the power to investigate, issue subpoenas and bring charges against officers who abuse the public trust, is a proven accountability measure. So is there the political will to do the right thing? Council members Todd Gloria and Chris Cates have recommended the council examine community demands and CRB performance closely.

Now is the time for community action. San Diego City Council is reviewing the City Charter, which includes the Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices. Residents are demanding a community review board like the one county residents have, one with:

1.    Independent investigatory and subpoena power

2.    Independent complaint intake, tracking and enforcement procedures

The power to appoint to the new community review board must also be expanded beyond the mayor’s office to increase independence and broader community participation. Each City Council district representative would appoint two members and the mayor would appoint one member.

The next City Charter Review Committee meeting is scheduled for the first Thursday in October at 2 p.m. Committee members need to hear from the community about the problems we experience on a daily basis with police.

A strong community review board is one important first step to strengthening community relations. The city must also implement the other 39 audit recommendations to fix our struggling Police Department.

Barron is a member of Women Occupy San Diego, a grass-roots advocacy group that has convened the Community Review Board Project in response to ongoing policing problems.

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