For the first time in its almost 20-year history, the board that investigates allegations of law-enforcement misconduct for the county will send letters to eight complainants telling them that their cases couldn't be investigated in time and, therefore, have been dismissed.
Despite a 29-percent increase in complaints in 2009 (135 versus 2008's 105), the budget for the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) was cut by 14 percent, said executive officer Carol Trujillo. Trujillo said she's been short an investigator since February, leaving just her, one investigator and a part-time secretary.
“It is very frustrating for us,” Trujillo said in an e-mail. “More importantly, it's a disservice to the individuals who brought complaints to the Review Board for investigation and are instead getting a letter saying we're sorry but time's up.”
According to California's Public Safety Officers' Procedural Bill of Rights, all investigations into peace-officer misconduct that could result in punishment must be completed within one year from the date the complaint is received. Even though CLERB only recommends to the Sheriff's Department what sort of punishment an officer should receive—it's up to the sheriff to determine the punishment, if any—county lawyers have advised Trujillo to stick to the one-year timeline. Their recommendations were based on court rulings involving other law-enforcement review boards. Any complaint that CLERB can't properly investigate within a year will be dismissed.
Some of the timed-out probes, briefly summarized in CLERB's Jan. 12 meeting agenda, are pretty serious: Threats made by a sheriff's deputy against a mentally handicapped county jail inmate; an illegal search of, and seizure of items from, a complaint's apartment by probation officers; and an allegation of excessive force by two deputies that resulted in the complainant losing consciousness. Trujillo said CLERB staff spent hours trying to close these cases, but simply ran out of time.
John Parker, CLERB's executive officer from 1997 to 2007, said he had to fight to get a second investigator added to his staff and, even then, “there were always cases that went beyond the year time limit”—2002, for instance, saw a record 229 complaints. In 2004, Parker was able to meet a goal of zeroing out a backlog of open investigations.
“At the end of 2009, we had a backlog of 84 open cases that is getting older by the day,” Trujillo said. “Because of the increase, we needed to allocate more time to taking in new complaints than to completing existing investigations.”
CLERB's also had to cut its meetings back to six times a year rather than the usual 12 because of the backlog, something CityBeat reported in its Jan. 6 issue.
“Looking ahead, I expect to have one-year cases with staff recommendations to dismiss them because they are timed out on most, if not all, of our six agendas this year,” Trujillo said.