March 30 2010 07:07 PM

Law-enforcement review board running on 'half a cylinder'

When she departs her post on April 1, Carol Trujillo, head of the county's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board, will leave CLERB with the smallest staff in its almost 20-year history—one investigator and a part-time administrative assistant—amid a growing backlog of uninvestigated complaints. Trujillo submitted her letter of resignation on March 11; she left for a pre-planned vacation on March 17 and returned March 29.

Trujillo didn't respond to e-mailed questions from CityBeat, but in her letter to board chair James Achenbach, she said only that she'd accepted a job offer and is “returning to the practice of law.”

CLERB, created by voter mandate in 1990 in response to a number of high-profile police-brutality cases—including one brought by former Navy chaplain Jim Butler that resulted in a $1.1-million settlement—is charged with conducting independent reviews of complaints by citizens against sheriff's deputies and probation officers. The board also investigates all deaths that result from an action by county law-enforcement whether or not a complaint is filed. A paid staff investigates complaints, and an all-volunteer board reviews the investigator's findings. Most of the board's work is done behind closed doors, the result of a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that curtailed what information law-enforcement review boards can make public about the cases they review.

Despite CLERB's relatively low profile, a number of issues emerged under Trujillo's tenure, which began in March 2007 after John Parker, CLERB's executive officer since 1997, retired. Last fall, a proposal to eliminate CLERB's hard-fought ability to subpoena non-cooperative officers got the attention of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, two former CLERB executive officers and the ACLU. Trujillo ultimately added subpoena rights back into the rules and regulations but didn't amend a handful of other proposed changes with which oversight proponents disagreed. And, as CityBeat reported in February, Danica James, a former CLERB investigator who was terminated by Trujillo, filed a complaint against her former boss, alleging gross mismanagement. James, who was a San Diego Police officer and acting detective before going to work for CLERB, said that when she started the job, she found an office in disarray: files that contained wrong information, missing evidence and, in one case, evidence that corroborated a complainant's version of events that went ignored.

Trujillo told CityBeat that the review board—which is responsible for hiring and firing the executive officer—had found James' allegations to be “unfounded.” A county spokesperson, however, told CityBeat in late February that, at that point, the investigation into the complaint had not yet been completed.

Most troubling, though, are the number of cases CLERB has dismissed so far this year—14 out of 27 brought before the board for review. Under the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, if an officer is to be disciplined for misconduct, the discipline must be imposed within one year of the incident in question. Even though CLERB can't mandate discipline if a complaint's found to be valid—it can only make a recommendation—and officers have the right to appeal sustained findings to the county's civil service commission, eight complaints in January and six in March were dismissed because the short-staffed department couldn't complete the investigations within a year.

CLERB normally employs two investigators but, since James' termination, has been making do with one, with Trujillo sharing the investigative duties. Trujillo told CityBeat in January that a mandatory 14-percent budget cut imposed by the county was the reason for the staff shortage. But a breakdown of CLERB's budget obtained by CityBeat in February showed enough money available to hire a part-time investigator. CLERB also ended the 2008-09 fiscal year with $155,141 of its allocated budget unspent.

Last month, in response to questions from CityBeat, county spokesperson Mike Workman said Trujillo didn't request that the unspent money be rolled over to her 2009-10 budget. Trujillo did, however, put in a request to hire temporary part-time help, but, Workman said, the county's Public Safety Group, which administers CLERB's budget, opted to freeze CLERB's budget pending a review of Trujillo's job performance prompted by James' complaint.

In response to follow-up questions submitted by CityBeat for this story, Public Safety Group human resources director Jessie Bishop said the review was complete and PSG had approved funding to hire a second investigator as soon as Trujillo's replacement is hired. Bishop said she couldn't comment on the findings of the review, citing confidentiality. James said she'd not been told that the review was complete.

The county has yet to advertise Trujillo's open position. Bishop said the goal was to find someone “as soon as possible” and that PSG will work with the board to recruit candidates. CityBeat attempted to contact the board's chair and vice chair but didn't hear back by press time. The board's secretary, Eddie Castoria, referred a reporter to the board chair.

Louis Wolfsheimer, an attorney and board member since 2005, said he'd expressed concern at meetings about the backlog of investigations and the need for at least a part-time investigator. Wolfsheimer said he wasn't aware that the board's budget had been frozen.

“We're running on half a cylinder here,” he said. “We have such a big backlog. People expect that if they file a complaint against the sheriff, that it's going to be heard within a year. There are no excuses.

“We need another investigator; we need a leader, but we need an investigator,” he said. 

An earlier version of this story had Jim Butler's last name as Bishop. We regret the error.

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