The caseload files of the city's Citizen Review Board on Police Practices will likely have two new additions during the upcoming months-the cases of Michael Shawn Kyle and Leon Anthony Morgan.
Both Kyle and Morgan were shot and killed by San Diego police officers earlier this year-shootings which were justified, according to a ruling last week by District Attorney Paul Pfingst.
Police officials say Kyle met his fate after charging on an officer with a 10-inch butcher knife, while Morgan found his demise after he allegedly threatened an officer with a brick.
Soon, as in the cases of all police shootings, the 23-member Citizen Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) will assume its responsibility of reviewing the Kyle and Morgan cases-and evaluate whether or nor the use of deadly force by those officers was justified.
Regardless of what the findings of the CRB are in the Kyle and Morgan cases, justified or not, the summaries of those findings, which include a narrative how the CRB comes to its decision in every case, might never be available to the public.
In 1999, San Diego City Manager Michael Uberuaga made an effort to release the CRB summaries of officer-involved shootings to the public. In response, the San Diego Police Officers Association, the union that represents city cops, took the city to court, arguing that the summaries are, in effect, personnel records, which by law can't be made public.
Uberuaga disagreed, countering that the summaries are based on reports of the CRB, which are not deemed personnel records under state law and can legally be voluntarily released.
The police officers union won that battle, which means those summaries won't see the light of day-unless the city wins an appeal of the ruling it has pending in court.
In any case, the issue raises serious questions about the public's right to know about how the citizens' board makes its decisions versus the rights of cops to maintain confidentiality when it comes to their job performance.
“If there's an abuse of power on the part of the police, the public has the right to know,” said Joe DeNigro, who chairs the CRB. “The way it stands right now, we can't tell the public.”
DeNigro said the contention by the police officers union that the CRB summaries violate California law is off base, especially since such summaries-and CRB reports-exclude the names of police officers involved.
Police union officials disagree, and they add that not only is public release of the documents illegal, but it's also dangerous to the careers of the officers.
“The problem with the CRB is they're not equipped to make individual judgments,” said Everett Bobbit, attorney for the union. “The truth is that officers who work in high-profile cases can have their careers destroyed by people who frankly don't know what they're doing.”
Uberuaga's decision to release CRB summaries to the public came after the death of Adolphus Demetrius DuBose, a former football player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was shot and killed by city officers Timothy Keating and Robert Wills on July 24, 1999.
The case raised the ire of the city's African American community, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and San Diego Urban League. Activists demanded more information about the shooting (DuBose was reportedly shot 12 times, including at least five times in the back).
In addition, members of the city's African American and Latino leadership have long claimed that San Diego cops use excessive force when suspects are people of color.
In response to additional allegations by community leaders that the CRB doesn't adequately review police shootings, Uberuaga authorized the release of a narrative form of the CRB's findings, which was developed and released publicly in the DuBose case. The CRB found in its review that the DuBose shooting was justified.
Brian Watkins, attorney for the DuBose family, is a supporter of the CRB concept, but he believes that in order for the panel to be truly effective, members must be allowed to interview witnesses to officer-involved shootings-authority they currently do not have.
“I like the idea [of a CRB], but I don't want their hands to be tied by the police department,” Watkins said. By releasing the CRB summaries to the public, “you'll get to see how [the police] get evaluated, and be able to question them. They need to be critiqued. If they really don't mind being scrutinized, what are they so worried about?”
Watkins believes that many suspects can be subdued without lethal force, which he says was wrongly used in the DuBose shooting. He referred particularly to the case of William Miller, an apparently mentally disturbed homeless man who was shot and killed by police officers in February. Officers say Miller allegedly threatened passer-bys with a tree branch.
“I don't consider a tree branch a deadly weapon,” Watkins said. “You can see why [the police] wouldn't want the review board to look into that case. If you look at the circumstances, you'll see that in these situations the police are not dealing with armed bank robbers. These aren't scenarios where their lives are in danger.”
Watkins is not alone in questioning the use of deadly force in the Miller case. Rev. Glen Allison, deputy director of the San Diego Ecumenical Council, witnessed the shooting and argued that it was preventable.
Allison said that at least eight officers and a helicopter had arrived at the scene, on Midway south of Point Loma Boulevard. Miller, Allison said, was armed with nothing but a four-foot branch. “He was on a small knoll surrounded by police.”
A K-9 dog unit then arrived at the scene, Allison said, which further agitated Miller, who then “bolted” towards police officers. “As soon as he [advanced], he was shot. To me, the proper course would have been to call a team from the mental health facility [a few blocks away] on Rosecrans. There were so many police. In my view, it was preventable.”
The CRB was created on Nov. 8, 1988 by Proposition G. The CRB's mission is to review and evaluate citizen complaints against police officers and against the police department's handling of those complaints. Members of the board, which are appointed by the city manager, review all police shootings, whether or not complaints are filed. The CRB review includes a thorough assessment of all police reports, including forensics and ballistics, as well as all documents from the police department's office of Internal Affairs.
“We wait until the whole package is completed,” said Scott Fulkerson, executive director of the CRB.
Not everyone in the public, however, views the CRB as an effective way to monitor the police.
Benjamin Prado, coordinator of the Raza Rights Coalition, sees the CRB as a linchpin in a bureaucratic system geared to protect the rights of police-even in cases where the police are wrong. He further believes that making the CRB summaries public won't change anything.
“We believe that it is nothing but a rubber stamp,” said Prado. “They've never been critical of a single shooting reviewed by the D.A.-and they get their information after the fact.”
He added that the CRB needs to implement a “transparent” process and have the ability to conduct its own investigations of the police, outside of the realm of law enforcement. “We feel that it is better to have a real, functioning CRB than a dysfunctional one that defeats its own purpose.”
According to the CRB's 2001 annual report, the board agreed with the Internal Affairs ruling in every incident involving a police shooting, including the one case in which Internal Affairs ruled that a shooting was not justified.
Although DeNigro admitted that the CRB usually does agree with the findings of the department's own Internal Affairs office in police shootings, he refutes Prado's “rubber-stamp” label.
He said that if the CRB conducted its own investigations by interviewing witnesses, it would only further slow down the process, with CRB members scrambling for witness subpoenas. “The CRB does not have subpoena authority, nor does it wish to have such authority,” DeNigro said.
“We feel that the current process of investigation provides us intimate knowledge of the police department's policing of itself,” DeNigro added. “The dedication with which a police department regulates itself speaks to its desire to reject behavior within its ranks which would otherwise sully its reputation, and bring dishonor to the organization as a whole.”
A date for the city's appeal to be heard in court has not been set, according to the City Attorney's office.
In the meantime, the CRB will continue its reviews of all police shootings-and eventually make findings in the Kyle and Morgan cases, just as it made findings in the case of William Miller.
But like the Miller shooting, the opinions of the CRB in those cases-like all police shootings-will remain confidential.
Union officials believe that when the appeal finally gets its day in court, the city manager's desire to make the summaries public will once again be dismissed.
The citizen's review board “is a waste of taxpayer money,” Bobbit said. “Due process applies to cops as well as crooks. This is not providing due process.”