Semper vigilans?

By Kelly Davis

City, county review boards need to stay strong, advocates say

Former CLERB executive officer Sue Quinn. Photo by Kelly Davis.

At a San Diego City Council committee meeting in October, Patrick Hunter described his department as “bare bones.” At that point, Hunter was the executive director of the city's Citizens Review Board on Police Practices—and its only full-time paid staffer.

Last month, to help close a $179-million budget deficit, the city eliminated Hunter's position, a saving of $104,000 annually.

If the CRB was bare-bones before, Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of Imperial and San Diego Counties, has a word for what's become of it: “Emasculation.”

“These cuts will gut its effectiveness completely,” he said.

More than a decade ago, the San Diego County Grand Jury probed the region's two law-enforcement oversight boards and found both lacking. The county's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, was understaffed and didn't have the support of county leaders. The CRB, meanwhile, needed some teeth, jurors argued, in the form of subpoena power. Unlike the county board, which conducts independent investigations of complaints involving law-enforcement officers, the CRB reviews the police department's internal affairs investigations of complaints.

Because both boards were created by ballot initiative—in response to significant complaints about officer misconduct and lapses in policy and procedure—the Grand Jury posed this question: “Are we getting what we voted for?”

It might be time to ask that question again. While the CRB's lost its only full-time staff person, the county's CLERB has been considering changes to its rules and regulations that observers say will only undermine the board's integrity.

The Mayor's office will hand Hunter's responsibilities over to the executive director of the city's Human Relations Commission (HRC). The HRC handles discrimination complaints citywide, and its executive director works with a board of 15. The CRB, meanwhile, is composed of 23 volunteers who spend 15 to 20 hours a month reviewing internal-affairs investigations.

Rachel Laing, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders—San Diego's chief of police from 1993 to '99—described the staff cut as a “consolidation” and said that the mayor doesn't expect it will undermine the CRB's mission.

“The commission will continue to have an executive director—someone with excellent credentials and a long history of exemplary service with the city of San Diego,” Laing said in an e-mail. “The size and duties of the 23-member board also will remain exactly the same. The end result is that the board will continue to do the same thing it's been doing for two decades—providing valuable citizen oversight of the police department.”

Among letters the Mayor's office received asking that Hunter's position be retained was one from Philip Eure, executive director of the Office of Police Complaints in Washington, D.C., and a past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

“It makes a big difference having an agency dedicated to improving police accountability as opposed to subsuming those functions under an agency devoted to a broader ‘human relations' mission,” Eure wrote, adding later: “From a legal perspective, San Diego also risks exposing itself to greater liability in police misconduct matters if the proposal related to CRB is implemented. Cities and counties can often escape liability by showing that there is an effective mechanism in place… to root out and detect police abuse.”

City Councilmember Tony Young said he had hoped that the CRB would expand its reach to respond to communitywide concerns. Only this year did the CRB start tracking complaints by police division, and a disproportionate number of complaints came from Young's district.

“I'm standing on Market Street,” he said via cell phone. “There's nobody crying and weeping tears because of less staffing in that commission, because they simply haven't had a presence here. They've been meeting at a library in Point Loma.” (At Young's request, the board held its December meeting in his district.)

Budget cuts have left the county's review board short an investigator and, because of that, the board's cut back its meetings from every month to every other month. But staff reductions aren't the reason for the update to CLERB's rules, said Executive Officer Carol Trujillo. Many of the changes, she said, are in response to a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that restricts what information law-enforcement review boards throughout California can share with the public.

But some proposed changes have confounded people familiar with CLERB's history. An early draft of the new rules and regulations, for instance, eliminated CLERB's ability to hold investigative hearings (a later draft reinstated the hearings). Sue Quinn, CLERB's executive officer from 1995 until 1997, said that hearings are rare—she can recall only one during her tenure at CLERB—and the board can decide most cases based on investigative reports. But, she said, “it's important to keep it for those times when it will be necessary.” The right to subpoena witnesses was a hard-fought legal victory for CLERB, and Quinn didn't want to see the board give it up.

Other proposed changes include:

• A complainant who comes up with new evidence after CLERB's made its decision will no longer be able to appeal that decision.

• If the officer who's the subject of the complaint resigns or retires, CLERB will end its investigation. Previously, CLERB had discretion to terminate an investigation.

• In the past, if the subject officer is facing criminal charges tied to the incident that prompted the complaint, CLERB would postpone its investigation. That language has been changed to say that the investigation will be postponed if either party—complainant or officer—is facing criminal charges.

“It's deliberately changing it to mean something that's 180 degrees away from what it originally meant,” Quinn said. “I can have a criminal case pending against me and I can make an allegation that something that happened during that arrest was wrong. If it can't be investigated until after my criminal case has gone away, it really puts the complaint into longtime limbo.”

Trujillo said that particular change is in response to concerns from defense attorneys.

“We've had specific instances in which a complainant's attorney was very unhappy that his/her client contacted us from jail and was discussing the prosecution/complaint with us. Waiting until the complainant's prosecution was over seems fair and prudent in these instances,” she said.

The ACLU's Keenan thinks there's a way to get around that problem: “It might be that [the rules] specify that any complainant or witness who is represented by defense counsel shall be instructed to advise their counsel about an interview with CLERB.”

As for ending an investigation if the officer resigns, Trujillo said that under the county charter, CLERB's jurisdiction extends only to “peace officers or custodial officers employed by the Sheriff's Department or Probation Department.”

John Parker, CLERB's executive officer from 1997 to 2007, wants to see the board push up against the rules rather than back away. It was during his tenure that the board lost its ability to hold open hearings and release detailed reports, due to court rulings—two things that proponents of strong oversight say only help build public confidence in law enforcement.

“I think most citizens would prefer the board continued working to the maximum extent the law allows rather than simply 'folding up the tent' and going home,” he said.

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