You might’ve heard the question “Who polices the police?” get tossed around a lot over the last several months as cities across the nation grapple with how to hold law enforcement agencies accountable to the public.

This week, San Diego will take it up a notch: How do we police the group that polices the police?

On Thursday, the City Council’s charter-review committee — currently engaged in a months-long revise of the city’s main governing document — will consider proposing an overhaul to the citizen watchdog group that monitors the San Diego Police Department. The group’s role is enshrined in the City Charter.

The review comes at the request of a coalition of civil rights activists who are urging changes to how the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) operates. Like with other charter revisions, any changes would need approval from the City Council and then voters.

The CRB is a 23-member, volunteer panel appointed by the mayor that reviews the department’s Internal Affairs investigations of so-called “Category One” citizen complaints, which can range from allegations of discrimination to improper use of force. If someone’s shot by an officer or dies during the arrest process, the CRB reviews those cases regardless of whether a complaint’s been filed.

READ MORE: Police Watchdog: ‘There’s a Lack of Transparency’

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

After reviewing the Internal Affairs investigation, the board votes to either agree with police findings, disagree or ask the department to reopen the case. If the two sides can’t agree, they’ll negotiate until they do. If they still can’t agree, the case goes to the mayor to decide, but that rarely happens, said CRB chair Yuki Marsden.

The board’s also working against the clock. With a few exceptions, state law says any investigation into police misconduct must be completed within a year; if it’s not, the complaint’s dismissed.

The CRB can suggest policy changes and recommend discipline, but it can’t force the department to comply.

The activists say the CRB lacks independence and too often agrees with Internal Affairs findings. They want a review board that’s able to conduct its own investigations — a model used by some other citizen watchdog groups, including the county’s Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board, which employs two full-time investigators, has subpoena power and regularly publishes summaries of its findings.

In other words, they want more power.

“We’re looking for a review board that has some teeth,” said Mark Jones, who heads the Black Student Justice Coalition, one of the groups, along with Women Occupy San Diego and United Against Police Terror San Diego, urging the overhaul. They point to a raft of problems the Police Department’s faced over the last few years: sexual misconduct cases, allegations of racial profiling, at least two controversial shootings and other violent encounters with the public.

A recent Justice Department review found that officers weren’t being held accountable for bad behavior and the SDPD’s internal system for dealing with misconduct was seriously flawed.

Jones, a former Marine, grabbed attention in December when he organized a silent police-brutality demonstration at a City Council inauguration. It wasn’t the demonstration that made headlines, but rather comments muttered by a Council staffer, who called the protesters “fucking idiots” and said she wanted to shoot them, within earshot of a KPBS reporter. The resulting controversy led to offers for Jones to meet with city officials.

High on his priority list: how to create a more independent review board.

“Give us the power we need to hold police accountable to the community they’re supposed to be protecting,” Jones said. “It saves lives in the end because you get to root out people who shouldn’t be behind the badge.”

The CRB was created in 1988, via ballot measure. A competing measure sought to create a review board with the kind of powers the committee is now considering: subpoena power and the ability to independently investigate complaints. It was strongly opposed by the police union and lost by 815 votes.

As for the current proposal, law enforcement hasn’t taken a position. Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said his group needs more details, but generally prefers the CRB model.

“Unlike CLERB, CRB actually has the ability to change the outcome of an SDPD IA investigation if they believe IA did an inadequate job,” he said.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said the department will comply with whatever voters approve.

“Having worked in the Internal Affairs Unit, I have great respect and appreciation for the hard work the members of the Citizen’s Review Board on Police Practices do,” Zimmerman said in a written statement. “The Police Department follows the CRB guidelines put in place by the City Charter and will continue to do so if any changes are made.”

But the CRB’s top leaders questioned whether what the activists are proposing is necessary.

Sharmaine Moseley, the board’s executive director who came to San Diego from Albany, N.Y., where she headed that city’s police review board for seven years, doesn’t have an opinion on whether San Diego needs to change its police-oversight model — she’s too new to the city to make such a determination, she said. But on one key change being mulled – subpoena power – Moseley disagrees.

The activists argue the board needs subpoena power to compel testimony from officers and reluctant witnesses and get access to records tied to the investigation.

Albany’s board had subpoena power but never needed to use it, Moseley said.

“Here the CRB members go into Internal Affairs and they get the entire case file,” she said. “So they have access to information right up front. If they didn’t have access, that would be grounds for subpoena power.”

Marsden, the CRB chair, agreed subpoena power is unnecessary because the board’s work is considered an administrative review.

“And as an administrative review, [officers] are admonished and are compelled — they have to answer every question that is asked of them,” she said. “We have the ability to reopen an investigation and contact the officer … until we’re satisfied. If we want an answer, [the officer] is compelled to answer.”

Marsden also disagrees that the CRB’s structure needs to be changed.

“The model that we have works for the city of San Diego,” she said.

Because there tends to be the perception that review boards like San Diego’s lack independence, some cities have adopted a hybrid model, said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Eugene, Ore., for instance, has both a civilian review board and an independent police auditor.

“Oversight is a process just like policing is a process,” Buchner said. “It’s important to continue to evaluate the oversight entity and whether it’s meeting the goals and objectives it was set up to meet.”

And for the CRB, there’s the rub. Over the last several years, it’s been difficult for the board to meet its goals and objectives. In 2009, to save money, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders cut the board’s full-time executive director. Up until earlier this year, when Mayor Kevin Faulconer restored that funding, the CRB had to share an executive director with the city’s Human Relations Commission. As a result, the board’s last annual report was filed in 2009 and its public outreach efforts have been almost nonexistent.

Moseley said she’s working on compiling those missing reports. In the future, she’d like to be able to produce more detailed reports, she said, though state law strictly limits what the reports can include. In 2000, after the CRB issued a critical report on the police shooting of a homeless man wielding a tree branch, the POA sued. That lawsuit came after a similar suit filed against CLERB by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Everett Bobbitt, the attorney for both unions at the time, bragged in a law-enforcement magazine article about the effect the lawsuits had on police oversight.

“These past rulings have for the most part made such review boards irrelevant,” he wrote.

Moseley said she’s met with Marvel, the police union president, about the need for greater transparency.

“We’re on the same page as far as trying to make things as transparent as possible,” she said.

But there are some things the CRB can’t know. They don’t have access to an officer’s disciplinary record, for instance. They can ask to see records of citizen complaints filed against an officer, but they’ll only get to see complaints similar to the one they’re reviewing. That makes it difficult for the CRB to provide an extra check on rooting out problem officers.

“I’d much rather see the emphasis on how do you change that,” Marsden said. “Efforts would be better focused there.”

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, criminal justice and drug policy director for the ACLU of California, said what the activists want — subpoena power and independent review — isn’t enough to bring about the changes they’re seeking.

There’s a larger conversation that needs to happen, she said, about the rules that dictate when an officer-involved shooting is justified and how California law, more than any other state, hobbles oversight efforts by restricting access to information.

“A citizens review board … can only work within the existing rules, and the rules suck,” she said.

    This article relates to: Police Misconduct, Public Safety

    Written by Kelly Davis

    Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist focusing on criminal justice and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynndavis or send an email to

    aida gonzalez
    aida gonzalez

    It is ridiculous that San Diego chose to hire - and pay - a woman to man the CRB who AGREED with the police 97% of the time. The grand jury investigated and castigated the SDPD IA division for intimidating the CRB.  Even with that intimidation, they did a better job that the new head of the CRB.  Let's make it clear, the federal investigation says that SDPD is broken. The grand jury said the CRB is broken. SO, HEY, San Diego!  Let's keep it broken by hiring a woman who will exonerate police MORE. Hats off to you San Diego.

    rhylton subscriber

    Ye men and women of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? To put it another way, we are wasting time, trying to put teeth into the unwieldy CRB beast. 

    There are three essential interrelated problems

    1.The SDPD practices biased policing, and uses elaborate deceptions to conceal it.

    2.The District Attorney uses bias in her discretionary decisions as to who should or should not be prosecuted e.g.:

       a)Shooting justified because man killed had a shiny object around his waist and was present in a suspected drug house. (I shall be careful in my                    choice of belt buckles.)

       b)The abuse or persecution of Aaron Harvey and others.

    3.The CRB is toothless, but the correction of item 1 and 2 makes that CRB shortcoming, and the CRB itself,  irrelevant.

    Federal litigation will provide relief on items 1 and 2 and the CRB and new executive director Moseley shall retain the irrelevant “toothless powers.” So I ask why is the ACLU (or other public advocates) sitting on its hands?

    I have teeth and, to date, they have done me no good; not on these things.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Last month alone, Federal courts ruled against three SD Police Officers cleared by SDPD Internal Affairs:

    • U.S. District Judge Larry Burns noted inconsistencies in the statements by SDPD Officer Jon McCarthy, who claimed Victor Ortega tried to take away his service revolver and his secondary weapon.

    • A Federal Jury found that SDPD Officers Justin Mattly and Ariel Savage falsely arrested Javier Cota without probable cause, in violation of the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    Last week, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis cleared 22 police shootings since 2013 :

    • Two Thirds of these shootings were by SDPD officers

    • Four were by Sheriffs

    • 18 police shootings in 2013-2015 have yet to be reviewed by the D.A.

    Mike Marrinan, civil rights attorney specializing in excessive force cases, said 40 shootings in two and a half years is "unacceptable" and that an independent agency should be examining why so many officers resort to deadly force in San Diego County.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    As stated in the article the Civilian Review Board gets it's facts from the Internial Affairs section. It should also state that the CRB gets only the facts that the A.I. wants them to have. The only way a CRB can be effective is to have subpoena power and the ability to carry out a separate investigation from the police. How many times has the CRB and the police disagreed on an investigation? I'll bet not many. So the police are correct in their actions 99.9% of the time. Give me a break.

    Everyone knows that our tax money pays for the police. What I want to know is that when police are sued in civil court for misconduct and are found guilty why do the tax payers have to pay for that too? Why can't the officers pay for their own individual insurance, like the malpractice insurance that Dr's. pay for? Once and officer is sued so many times and loses in civil court the insurance is canceled.