The San Diego County Grand Jury is a body of 19 citizens tasked with investigating public complaints about government and inspecting the county's correctional facilities. But its latest report on the local jail system, filed on May 19, reads more like a press release than a watchdog report, patting the Sheriff's and Probation departments on the back despite serious questions regarding deaths in custody and the use of pepper spray on juveniles. The report glosses over concerns raised by detention experts and uses inaccurate numbers to support its conclusions.
During the last two years, CityBeat has dug deep into local detention issues. In one series of reports, we revealed that San Diego County had the highest inmate mortality rate of California's largest counties, nearly 60 percent higher than the national average. We also covered the controversial use of pepper spray in San Diego jails, which has been used at levels that, in other jurisdictions, have prompted lawsuits and U.S. Department of Justice sanctions.
This past December, in response to our reporting, Sue Quinn—who headed the county's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) between 1995 and 1997 and served as president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement— filed separate complaints with the Grand Jury, seeking a formal investigation of the deaths and use of pepper spray.
"Inadequate, incomplete or cursory inmate death reviews do not identify and address systemic problems; they increase San Diego County's potential liability," Quinn wrote in one letter, adding, "San Diego County successfully addressed jail deaths in the 1980s and 1990s. It can do so again."
But, instead of issuing recommendations, the Grand Jury issued the sheriff a "commendation" for reducing jail deaths in 2013 despite an uptick in the jail population, the result of state prison realignment. The commendation was supported by a chart showing eight deaths in 2013, down from 12 deaths in 2009.
But, according to public records provided to CityBeat by the Sheriff's Department, 12 people died in county jails last year, an increase over 2012's eight deaths and the 11 inmates who died in 2010 and also 2011. (The Grand Jury report wrongly says there were 10 deaths in 2011.)
This isn't the first time the Grand Jury got jail-death numbers wrong in its inspection report. Last year, it reported that four inmates had died between July 1, 2011, and Aug. 1, 2012. That report was amended after CityBeat submitted evidence that 11 inmates had died in that period.
Foreman Gregory Ny didn't respond to emails from CityBeat, but sometime after May 22, when CityBeat first contacted the Grand Jury about the inaccuracy, the numbers in the online report were corrected, although the written section wasn't updated and still claims there's been "a steady decline" in inmate deaths.
In addition to the 12 deaths in 2013, CityBeat's aware of six people who've died in county jails so far this year.
Quinn asked the Grand Jury to look into whether the Sheriff's Department and CLERB were thoroughly reviewing each in-custody death. She received a response from Ny in late January, telling her that the Grand Jury had determined that existing oversight was sufficient.
In her second letter, Quinn said she was "shocked and dismayed" by the San Diego County Probation Department's use of oleoresin capsicum (OC, otherwise known as pepper spray) in juvenile facilities—875 incidents in two years as reported in a story jointly published by CityBeat and The Crime Report. Almost 15 percent of those incidents were recorded as unrelated to use in fights.
Although only 14 states allow for the use of pepper spray on juvenile detainees (and only five allow guards to carry it on their person), the Grand Jury concluded that this was the "preferred method" to establish control over a disobedient juvenile.
The Grand Jury also declared that it "found no incidents of excessive use of OC, and no violations of existing policies."
Documents obtained by CityBeat show that as recently as 2012, the county was investigating at least two OC incidents in which authorities suspected staff violated the policies. U-T San Diego further uncovered a September 2013 document in which the San Diego County Civil Service Commission substantiated allegations of improper pepperspray use, as well as inappropriate sexual activity and accessing of personal detainee records by a probation officer.