Bring in the Police Department Watchdog

Fix San Diego

Bring in the Police Department Watchdog

A court-appointed monitor is a drastic step. But the San Diego Police Department’s record of sexual misconduct cases over the last three years proves it needs one.

Police Chief William Lansdowne has said he’s willing to take his department through an outside audit.

fix san diego opinionBut I’d say San Diego’s force needs more than that. A court-appointed independent monitor would ensure the reforms Lansdowne has promised would be carried out to end the pattern of sex-related offenses by SDPD officers.

It’s a drastic step, one that should only be taken in the most extreme situations. The record of the last three years, however, clearly indicates such a situation is at hand.

The rash of sex abuse cases in the police department since 2011 is unacceptable in any professional organization. Most troubling is that the evidence points to a failure of the department’s accountability mechanisms.

Former officer Anthony Arevalos, who is now in prison for his offenses, shared his lewd photographs of women with other officers through department computers. These officers knew he was doing something wrong, but it’s obvious he continued to act this way for a long time before being caught.

Meanwhile, sexually offensive posters, some with even more offensive handwritten comments on them, were prominently displayed in officers’ cubicles. When some female officers complained, they suffered retaliation for doing so. Clearly, the culture of the department tolerates inappropriate conduct and fails to act in response to danger signs.

Court-appointed monitors are appropriate and necessary when the problems in a police department are systemic — meaning that it’s not a matter of a few bad officers operating independent of others. Given the facts brought out in in the current lawsuits against the department, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are correct in seeking a court-appointed monitor.

After all, this is now a well-established practice in policing. From Oakland to New York City, courts have appointed monitors to oversee reforms following the abuse of citizens by police. Monitors are also a standard in the U.S. Justice Department’s “pattern or practice” suits against departments, from the New Jersey State Police to the Los Angeles Police Department.

(Full disclosure: I served as an expert witness in the New York City stop-and-frisk case last year, and recommended both a set of sweeping reforms and the appointment of a monitor – recommendations that the judge accepted on all but one point.)

Monitors serve a number of functions. Most important, they are the eyes and ears of the court, examining the progress of reform (or lack thereof). They file periodic reports that keep the public, elected officials and the news media informed about those efforts. In this respect, monitors strip away the veil of secrecy that has traditionally enveloped police departments.

Monitors in other cases have helped facilitate reform. They’ve acted as resources for the department by bringing to bear their expertise about best practices.

Who serves as court-appointed monitors? These are people with expertise in police accountability, early identification and investigation of officer misconduct and appropriate disciplinary measures. Depending on what the judge orders, it could be a single person or a team of experts. There’s a national pool of experienced people in this field to choose from.

But the San Diego Police Department can’t afford to go halfway in reform efforts. It’s already lost the trust of the community. An outside monitor is necessary to set the department on a true course toward accountability.

Samuel Walker is professor emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of “The New World of Police Accountability.” Walker’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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