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We spoke with City Attorney Mara Elliott about her reaction to recent protests, police reform and her involvement in the city’s land deal with San Diego State University
In an appearance on our livestream series Voice of San Diego at Home on Monday, City Attorney Mara Elliott said that although she can’t endorse a November ballot measure that would overhaul oversight and accountability for the San Diego Police Department, she agrees that “reforms are absolutely necessary.”
The measure would remake the independent body that investigates alleged misconduct by SDPD by giving the group sweeping powers, including subpoena power over officers, witnesses and documents.
We spoke with Elliott about her reaction to recent protests, police reform and her involvement in the city’s land deal with San Diego State University. Here are a few interesting parts of that conversation with Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, edited for clarity and brevity.
Scott Lewis: We did a story last week about some of the protests, and in particular, the declaration of unlawful assembly. Unlawful assembly is when police officers controlling a demonstration decide that it has crossed some kind of line and now needs to be cleared out or moved significantly. A lot of people were arrested under that particular violation. That is a decision now that goes to your office to prosecute as a misdemeanor. Is that something you’ve been studying now and getting up to speed on? I’m not sure there’s been a lot of unlawful assemblies since you started.
Mara Elliott: Yeah, the issue has been arising from time to time because we were seeing protests during COVID-19, and I have tried to make very clear to the public that I am a supporter of the right to protest. I think very meaningful results come from peaceful protests. What we take seriously would be if somebody loots or batters somebody. But otherwise I have no interest in prosecuting peaceful protesters. I think what they have to say more than ever needs to be heard right now and discussed, and they are bringing about very good changes, long-awaited changes for San Diego.
SL: One of the things that people wanted was reform at the police department, and one of the things that has moved forward rather rapidly. Last week we saw the mayor of San Diego endorse a ballot measure that would go on the ballot in November that would create a more powerful, or at least an agency with a little bit more teeth, to investigate misconduct in the police department and use actual subpoena power and use an independent attorney. I want to bring up a comment. We had Andrea St. Julian on the podcast Thursday, she’s the co-author of this initiative, and she explained why that independent city attorney was so important.
She said “Another example of its lack of independence is that the city attorney is required to be the attorney for the community review board. This is the same city attorney who is the attorney for the police department. Alright. So when people look at that, they think, ‘Wait a second, how can the attorney whose duty it is to protect the police department properly advise the review board who supposedly has a duty to make recommendations regarding police conduct?'”
ME: I’ve talked with Andrea many times about this. And in fact, when I was running for city attorney back in 2016, I thought there is nothing more important than having the public trust the system. And I believe that they should have their own independent counsel. I’ve long advocated for that. It’s not a legal conflict of interest, but the public looks at it and says, ‘This doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right.’ And as a law enforcement officer, we have to listen to the public and respond accordingly. And I want them to trust in the system. Since I took over as city attorney, we’ve always arranged for them to have outside counsel. I haven’t been serving in that role for that very reason. And there’s a tortured analysis that you have to go through every year to ensure that they get that budget allocation. And I didn’t want them to go through that. I wanted them to have that charter revision. So I couldn’t agree with her more on that. I think it’s a really important step and I’ve been very supportive of that. Our office has worked closely with Councilmember [Monica] Montgomery on this proposal, the Women Occupy proposal, that Andrea was talking to you about, and I think it’s in a good place. Monica understands her community very well. She knows what her marching orders are. We gave her an attorney from Day One to ensure that she had the assistance she needed in evaluating it. And I think it’s in a really good place. And it was very encouraging to hear the mayor and the district attorney last week jump aboard. So I think reforms are absolutely necessary. I wish I could endorse it. I cannot because I have to write the impartial analysis for this measure that’s going to go to voters. What I can do is provide the assistance that they need to get the job done, and it’s well on its way.
SL: One of the things you could explain there, this commission, if this ballot measure is implemented, would have subpoena power. What is significant about subpoena power? Can you explain to people what that would mean and how that might make things different for a commission like that?
ME: Well I think that what the proponents are advocating is that subpoena power would give them another mechanism to get the records that they want to review. And I have heard frustration that an independent body has not been able to look at the records because there are too many impediments to getting them. And I believe, and I’m speaking for Andrea and she could probably better cover this with you, that they felt that was necessary. And I have heard that the county also has that mechanism. They like it. So that’s what they want as well.
SL: I think as Andrea pointed out, it probably wouldn’t be implemented or executed a lot, the subpoena power, but it would create a sort of mandate to people being investigated that they should cooperate because that’s sort of underneath. It’s always an option.
Let’s talk about this whole situation, though. Obviously, this is one of the most significant reforms that the city can do and is doing pushing forward over the next few months. As you watched what happened both with what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all these other names that we’re now never going to forget, but then also with the protests and then with the police backlash to the protests. What have you learned as part of the law enforcement process in the region? What have you learned from all of this and what would you like to see happen?
ME: Well, I have to say that this was a horrific thing, especially as a mother to watch on television. My children witnessed a murder on news. It’s horrible, and we are trying to figure out where do we go from here. It led to change, and it’s been positive change, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think the message is there can be, for somebody that’s in law enforcement or working in government, you absolutely must have trust in the system. And when there is unequal justice in the system, you do not have that. And we do not have a system that is going to work for all of us. So I think the most important thing you can do is step back and say, ‘Hey, this is not going away on its own. We need to fix this. What do we do?’ I love the steps that our former President Obama, put onto Twitter. I signed off because I think they’re very logical. We will review police practices. We will communicate with the public. We will figure out what needs to be fixed. We will report to the public. Very important. But then I think you look inside your own shop to try to figure out, are we part of the problem? Because everybody will have some role in this, and I think that you have to do that. I have assistant city attorneys that run various divisions within the office, and I’ve asked every one of them to really assess our relationships with the police department and figure out where is it that we need to help. What can we do? Where can we make change?
Watch the full video to hear more from Elliott on police reform, including movements to defund the police, a potential ballot measure that would change the role of the San Diego city attorney and her involvement in the city’s land deal with SDSU.