On the one-year anniversary since her department began using body cameras, and under the false pretense of public safety and maintaining the peace, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman doubled-down last week on her previously stated and apparently intractable position on the release of body camera footage. In short: She's the decider. Her reasoning? "It could be, as we've seen in other cities where public safety is at risk, where people are damaging property, assaulting people, you know, riot-type situations."
Never mind that in "other cities" the "riots" began as peaceful protests until militarized police forces acted to instigate violence, something widely recorded on private citizens' cell phones. Make no mistake, Zimmerman is clear that we—the public—will not be getting the transparency we deserve and, as those who pay her salary, are owed.
According to data reported by The San Diego Union Tribune, there's been an increase in the use of force by police against San Diegans since this implementation of body cameras. At the same time, interestingly enough, there's been a decrease in citizen complaints against officers.
Which prompts the questions: Where is the oversight? What exactly happens with these complaints?
The City of San Diego has a Citizen's Review Board (CRB), an all-volunteer panel of 23 people chosen by the mayor, whose job is to review complaints and hold the police department accountable.
However, according to Kate Yavenditti, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, and member of both Women Occupy San Diego and the Coalition to Reform the Citizens' Review Board on Police Practices, most complaints never make it to the CRB. This is because they are immediately routed, without any kind of tracking whatsoever, to Internal Affairs. IA then decides—much like Zimmerman on body camera footage—what will happen to them. Which is that they are disappeared.
"This is not an independent review," Yavenditti told me in a phone interview. "So how in the world can we have any trust in the system? The police are policing the police."
Yavenditti cited as an example what happened to citizen complaints after SDPD officers in riot gear became violent toward Occupy San Diego activists in 2011. The Occupy legal team encouraged those who were assaulted by police to file complaints. "Many of them did not expect the police brutality that they experienced and were too afraid to file complaints."
But 17 of them did file; and exactly zero landed at the CRB. (Three complainants went on to file lawsuits, all of which were settled by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.) When the CRB does actually receive complaints, they are largely redacted. The CRB—which is not allowed to interview the person filing the complaint or talk to witnesses—then reviews cherry-picked information. The only thing the CRB is empowered to do is to make policy recommendations; it cannot recommend discipline of officers or make any other meaningful impact.
As it happens, the City Charter is in the process of being updated, and it is the goal of the Coalition to Reform the Citizen's Review Board on Police Practices to have four essential reforms built into this new charter. They include:
1. Independent investigators and subpoena power, as provided to the San Diego County Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) by the voters in 1990 (Proposition A);
2. Intake, tracking and review of all complaints be done by the CRB, rather than SDPD Internal Affairs, also
as modeled by the San Diego CLERB;
3. Change the name from "Citizens Review Board" to "Community Review Board"; and,
4. CRB should be appointed by elected representatives in each of the nine City Council Districts (two per district), with one mayoral appointee.
These reforms are backed by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, the Black Student Justice Coalition, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, United Against Police Terror, Women Occupy San Diego and a host of other activist organizations interested in transparency and building trust between our communities and the San Diego Police Department.
Women Occupy was scheduled to do a 10-minute presentation before the Committee on Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods at City Hall on September 23 at 1 p.m. But this presentation was conspicuously canceled by the committee chair. Instead, all input will have to be in the form of public comment. If you care—and you should—and can make it out, please attend and sign up to speak. Turnout is important. If you want more information, you can send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reform of the CRB is not about antagonizing the SDPD; it is about creating a system of legitimate checks and balances, protecting the public from police brutality, and rejecting a status quo that allows Zimmerman (and those elected officials who support her policies) to dictate all the terms of our relationship with law enforcement. She must stop hiding body cam footage and complaints against her officers from public scrutiny. If this isn't changed, citizens of San Diego will never have true safety.