Monitoring the monitor
|By Kelly Davis|
Employee complaint alleges problems with county law-enforcement oversight
Illustration by Adam Vieyra
They're identified in reports by last name only: Scott and Harris, two San Diego County jail inmates who filed complaints against sheriff's deputies in 2007.
Danica James can't remember what the complaints alleged, only that she was instructed by her supervisor, Carol Trujillo, to push them aside.
When James was hired in September 2008 as a special investigator for San Diego County's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), there was a backlog of cases, some several months old, that needed to be investigated. The Scott and Harris cases, James said Trujillo told her, could be easily resolved if the inmates were transferred to state prison and didn't provide CLERB with new contact information. If that were to happen, their complaints would be dismissed without investigation.
But the inmates' transfer was delayed, and since complaints filed with CLERB must be investigated within a year, James ended up having to scramble to finish the investigations.
“They were not complete,” she said, “at least not according to my training and experience.”
That training and experience included five years with the San Diego Police Department, as a beat cop and acting detective, before James decided to take a job in law-enforcement oversight. Police agencies are sometimes at odds with those assigned to monitor them, and James knew that. But she understood why oversight is necessary. It was CLERB's mission statement, in fact, that drew her to the job: “To increase public confidence in government and the accountability of law enforcement by conducting impartial and independent investigations of citizen complaints of misconduct concerning Sheriff's Deputies and Probation Officers employed by the County of San Diego.”
“Some law enforcement officers were not particularly happy with me,” she recalled. “But you don't go there to make friends; you go there because you believe in what it stands for and that it actually helps public perception. You take that kind of job for the right reasons.”
At CLERB, James said she found an office in disarray. A number of files contained wrong information, and evidence that had been logged for some cases was missing. Complaints, some involving multiple deputies, had sat untouched for months. When James contacted the Sheriff's Department liaison assigned to assist CLERB with gathering evidence, he accused her of going on “fishing expeditions.”
“Evidence would often come in a week before the deadline,” she said—or it would come in too late. In one case, a videotape that corroborated statements by the complainant and a witness came in shortly after James had made her findings, but before the case had been presented to the board. She asked if she could amend her report and was told no.
After five months at CLERB, James was fired. She said she's never been told what exactly it was she did wrong; she suspects her termination was because she started to ask that her name be removed from cases that, in her opinion, fell short of being thoroughly investigated. Signing off on those cases, she felt, amounted to perjury.
The day she was fired, James filed a complaint with the county's Office of Internal Affairs (OIA), alleging gross mismanagement by Trujillo, CLERB's executive officer.
Several months after she filed her complaint, James was told verbally that OIA's investigation turned up evidence of mismanagement but that it didn't rise to the level that James alleged. She's asked for, but has been denied, a written record of those findings. OIA's director, Eloy Villa, was out of town and unavailable for comment by press time.
On Jan. 11, James found out, via a notice posted on CLERB's website, that the 11-member volunteer review board would be holding a special meeting the following afternoon—docketed simply as an employee-performance evaluation for Trujillo. At the meeting, James was allowed three minutes to address the board. She talked about her understanding of the legal and ethical standards laid out in CLERB's charter, about cases that were closed without, in her opinion, a full investigation and how she felt the office was doing a disservice to complainants and failing at its mission. Afterward, board members asked questions that, in James' opinion, ignored the substance of her complaint and instead seemed to suggest that maybe James and Trujillo simply didn't get along. James said this is the only contact she's had with the board regarding her complaint.
Trujillo told CityBeat that she couldn't discuss the case and that the board decided James' allegations were unfounded. Board members whom CityBeat was able to contact by press time either were not at the meeting or declined to comment.
James said she'd not been informed that the board had ruled on her complaint.
James said she wants to return to law enforcement, but her termination, she said, is making it difficult. “I've exhausted everything that I know to do, legally, ethically,” she said. “The way that it appears to [an employer] is: I'm a troublemaker who made a complaint against the supervisor.”
The 32-year-old is finishing up a master's degree in public administration and has only her thesis left to complete. She's decided to write about ways to measure the effectiveness of law-enforcement oversight—essentially a look at who's watching the watchdogs.
Verifying James' allegations is difficult—anyone who could potentially corroborate her case is currently employed by the county and can't, or won't, comment. And, when James filed her complaint with OIA, she turned over all documentation supporting her claim. Under California law, those records are exempt from public disclosure.
But there is evidence that the county's independent law-enforcement monitoring agency, created in 1990 by voter mandate, isn't the watchdog that some people want it to be. As CityBeat reported in December, Trujillo has proposed changes to CLERB's rules and regulations that supporters of enchanced law-enforcement oversight have argued will undermine the board's effectiveness and potentially disenfranchise complainants.
CLERB's been short an investigator since James was fired, leaving only one full-time investigator—a miniscule operation compared with oversight agencies in counties like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Trujillo said she's not filled the position because of a 14-percent budget cut imposed by the county, but a breadown of CLERB staff salaries obtained by CityBeat shows enough money left in the budget to hire at least a part-time investigator.
Citing an investigator shortage as the reason, last year Trujillo cut board meetings to every other month. At the first meeting of 2010, the board voted to dismiss eight cases—some with serious allegations—because an investigation couldn't be completed within the one-year deadline. Trujillo told CityBeat that dismissing the cases was based on advice from county legal staff—the California's Peace Officer Bill of Rights says that any investigation that could result in an officer being disciplined must be completed within a year. (It's this one-year deadline that James said resulted in incomplete investigations being sent to the board.)
Sue Quinn, CLERB's executive officer from 1995 to 1997 who went on to service as president of the National Association for Civilian Oversightof Law Enforcement, said that since police-monitoring agencies, like CLERB, have no power to mandate discipline—they can only make recommendations—all cases should be investigated.
“The benefits are much broader than simply identifying one individual employee's accident, error or deliberate misconduct,” Quinn said. “It's really to alert the department to issues they should be looking at or thinking about.
“If your commitment is to closing out as many [cases] as you can without action, you can say that since the department couldn't discipline anyway, we'll close the case; we don't need to investigate any further. Those two positions reflect two different understandings of what the purpose of these investigations is.”
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