Patrick Hunter's got a lot of catching up to do.
When CityBeat spoke with the new head of the county's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) last Friday, it was his fourth day on the job—too soon, he acknowledged, to get a real sense of just how behind the board is in its investigative duties.
Short-staffed for more than a year, CLERB has had to dismiss 19 complaints in the last five months, all of them brought by county residents against sheriff's deputies and probation officers. The dismissed complaints range from simple discourtesy to serious allegations of excessive force and illegal search and seizure by county law enforcement. But, 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 that disciplinary action be taken against an officer—it can only make a recommendation—county lawyers have advised CLERB to dismiss any complaints that can't be fully investigated within a year.
“We want to get the caseload manageable,” Hunter said, “and part of that is going to be with the addition of a second investigator—to get the caseload back to a manageable level where we're not dismissing any cases because of time problems.”
The two-decades-old oversight board, created by voter mandate to independently investigate allegations of law-enforcement misconduct, has been operating with only one full-time investigator—down from two—for more than a year. Former executive officer Carol Trujillo, who resigned abruptly in March, told the board that the staffing shortage was due to budget cuts. But as CityBeat reported in March, the county's Public Safety Group (PSG), under whose umbrella CLERB sits, had frozen the board's budget, pending a review of Trujillo's job performance. The review was prompted by a former investigator's allegations of mismanagement.
Hunter said he's not been privy to what exactly happened between Trujillo and PSG.
“All I know is that the investigator position's been advertised; they're narrowing down the candidates… we'll be interviewing and hiring,” he said.
Hunter said he's been assured that PSG is “committed to helping support the program and making sure that it operates the way it's supposed to.”
Hunter is a retired Navy lieutenant commander who served as a volunteer member of the city of San Diego's Citizens Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) from 1997 through 2005. From 2005 to 2007, he served on CLERB's board, also a volunteer position. He was hired as the executive director of the city's CRB in 2007 but was laid off earlier this year because of budget cuts (the city's Human Relations Commission and CRB now share one executive director). Earlier this year, before the position at CLERB opened up, Hunter was among five finalists to be New Orleans' independent police monitor.
Hunter's not only going to have to deal with a backlog of complaints; he'll also oversee revisions to CLERB's policies and procedures. Last fall, draft revisions drew criticism from the ACLU, two former CLERB executive officers and the current and former heads of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, all of whom argued that the proposed changes put CLERB too much in law-enforcement's corner and potentially disenfranchised complainants.
“It was on a fast track,” Hunter said about the policy-and-procedure revision, “and it was taken off the fast track.” He said he'll check in on the process at CLERB's first full-board meeting on July 13.
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of Imperial and San Diego Counties, said that at the CRB, Hunter did a good job of community outreach. But unlike CLERB, which independently investigates complaints against law enforcement, the CRB reviews investigations conducted by the San Diego Police Department's internal-affairs division. CLERB's model is preferable, Keenan said, but has the potential to ruffle law-enforcement's feathers.
“Our concern is that CLERB retain its strength and independence and get more resources to do its job,” he said.