Sept. 28 2016 01:22 PM

Proponents hope new Citizens’ Review Board policies would continue to evolve

    Report shows the number of complaints against San Diego Police Department grew since 2015
    Photo by Torrey Bailey

    The latest annual report from the San Diego Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices shows fewer cases were reviewed, but there were more allegations against officers within those cases this year (406) than last year (284). This year’s report was released on Monday and showed increases in allegations involving force, discrimination and procedural violations. Of the 406 allegations received in 2016, 66 were deemed sustainable by the board.

    Public dissatisfaction with the Citizens’ Review Board process led to Measure G being placed on the November 8 ballot.

    As the system works now, complaints are filed by citizens and then investigated by the San Diego Police Department’s Internal Affairs, which writes a report on the allegation, including whether the complaint was sustained and if an officer should be disciplined. The report is sent to the Citizens’ Review Board’s 23 volunteers, who may agree or disagree with the findings.

    Before 2015, there was a five-year gap during which these reports were not produced, or at least were not shared with the public, contributing to a waning trust in the board. This wariness deepened when veteran police officer Neal Browder fatally shot 42-year-old Fridoon Nehad in the Midway District in April 2015, but Browder was only partially investigated and returned to work soon afterward. Echoing a nationwide demand for increased police accountability, the public demanded reforms.

    In the present format, officer-involved deaths, like Nehad’s, and deaths that occur in police custody, are included in the Citizens’ Review Board list of duties, but Measure G would alter the charter to explicitly state these cases will be reviewed moving forward.

    The measure proposes two other main charter amendments. One would grant the city council oversight authority of the board; the second would change the board’s nameto the Community Review Board.

    Women Occupy San Diego have led the charge for reform and will hold a forum with the National Action Network on Oct. 12 to discuss police accountability, including Measure G, with the candidates for city attorney and District 9 city council candidates.

    Women Occupy became highly motivated after it said the Citizens’ Review Board never received its complaints during the Occupy San Diego movement.

    “They apparently decided that these were not serious enough to be reviewed and so nothing happened,” said Women Occupy committee member Kate Yavenditti. “We got pretty upset about that so we started looking at the CRB and discovered that this process is fairly meaningless as far as true accountability and transparency, since the police department is first of all responsible for which complaints are even going to be investigated. And then they are the ones who do all the investigations, talk to the witnesses and write up their report with their recommendations. The CRB only reviews what the Internal Affairs has done. So nothing the CRB does is independent.”

    Some suggestions from Women Occupy didn’t make it into Measure G. They wanted the Citizens’ Review Board to have independent legal counsel, independent investigators and subpoena power. Instead, councilmember Todd Gloria, who wrote the measure, lobbied to allot $25,000 to the city budget in case the board wanted to hire an independent legal counsel.

    It currently receives its legal advice from the city attorney’s office. This is another area that former Citizens’ Review Board member Jude Litzenberger said is a conflict of interest and should be changed.

    “The city attorney should advise them at open meetings and boards like they are trained to do,” she said. “But the way they have it now, the city attorney’s legal advice is given in closed session when there is a vote on the table, and it’s not given in writing, and it does affect the vote.”

    Litzenberger said she was surprised that independent legal counsel didn’t make the cut after it generated a lot of open discussion at a council meeting where councilmembers seemed to agree change was necessary. Both Mara Elliott and Robert Hickey, who are running to replace City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, said they support independent legal counsel for the board. Gloria said other former and current members of the Citizens’ Review Board didn’t see the city attorney’s legal consultation as a problem.

    About 85 percent of the time, Litzenberger said, the process is fine. But, that remaining 15 percent convinced her that reform was necessary. She said she often felt the board was steered toward agreeing with Internal Affairs’ findings.

    Litzenberger has faith in the direction the Citizens’ Review Board is headed and wants Measure G to pass, despite what she said are its shortcomings.

    Gloria acknowledged that some advocacy groups deem the measure insufficient, but he said the amendments address what former and current board members and city employees found to be the highest priorities, while leaving room for continued improvement.

    “This is in some ways a cleanup, but I think it would do a significant amount to allow us to make additional reforms in the future,” he said. “Reforms that ought to be the result of additional hearings and conversations with the community.”

    Yavenditti plans to do just that.

    “To be very clear, it is not our proposal,” she said. “While we certainly want this to go through because even the small changes are important, we will continue to work for what we really, really want, which is independent legal counsel, independent investigators and subpoena power.”

    If Measure G passes, city councilmembers, including Gloria’s successor Chris Ward, will oversee the board in addition to the mayor, who is now the only one with that authority.

    This wasn’t a suggestion made by Women Occupy, but the group supports it.

    “It’s easier for me to go to my city councilmember, make a complaint and be listened to,” Yavenditti said. “There’s a range of opinions among the city councilmembers about what they think about police accountability, so having all of the city councilmembers have oversight of the CRB is a good addition.”

    While there is no formal opposition to the ballot measure, the San Diego Police Officers Association has not endorsed it either.

    “Obviously the Police Officers Association is there to advocate for its members to the extent that they don’t think that [Measure G] is something they should oppose,” Gloria said. “But at the same time, the fact that they don’t fully embrace it shows that we struck the right balance for what it needs to be.”

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