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Police Watchdog: 'There's a Lack of Transparency'

Yuki Marsden is chair of the Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices in San Diego. In a Q-and-A, she reveals how the process works, gaps she sees in the system and what she thinks of body cameras.

In San Diego, there’s a clear answer for who watches the watchmen – or at least who’s appointed to.

Yuki Marsden has been on the Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices, or CRB, since 2008 and now serves as its chair. She and 22 other members are in part responsible for keeping San Diego’s police force in check, reviewing the evidence in complaints against officers and suggesting policy changes.

Marsden’s in a perfect position to call out kinks in the system – and she does. Transparency ranked high in her complaints about the process, in terms of both SDPD’s interactions with the public and with the CRB itself.

Marsden seemed narrowly focused, however, on what the CRB can and can’t do for now. When I asked for her thoughts on whether the public should have access to police body camera footage, an especially loud conversation nationwide and one the SDPD has been pressed on before, she said she hadn’t put much thought into it.

I sat down with Marsden to get a clearer idea what degree of accountability the CRB brings to San Diego’s shaky relationship with its police force, and what the future might hold for body cameras and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s just make this super clear for people right off the bat. There are a few different oversight models for police departments. Which type is San Diego’s CRB?

We’re the review. We don’t have subpoena power and I think it works for the city of San Diego because we have a department who’s willing to listen to us and make changes.

I’ll just walk you through the whole process: A citizen makes a complaint. They can complain directly to us, they can complain to the police, they can complain to their city councilman, who will forward it to us and then it gets sent to Internal Affairs.

Internal Affairs does the investigation. Our job and our role is to review the Internal Affairs report to make sure it was thorough, complete and accurate. And if we feel it’s not, then we have them reopen the investigation. They go back in, interview the people, look for additional evidence and present it back to us. And if we’re satisfied, we’ll make a decision.

A lot of discussion will go back and forth and we’ll find a common ground that we can go to. When people look at our findings, they see … close to 90 percent of the time, we’ll find that we have agreed with Internal Affairs. But what that doesn’t show is the amount of time that the team spent negotiating back and forth, getting Internal Affairs to change their finding.

One of the things why I think the review model works well is that, because it’s considered an administrative review, (under the Police Officers Bill of Rights) … (officers) are required to answer our questions. They can’t take the fifth, they can’t say no. They have to answer the question as it’s presented to them.

What kind of complaints can’t you handle?

We review what they call Category 1 complaints, which are arrest, force, discrimination, slurs or criminal conduct — like money is missing from my wallet or something like that. The other complaints, of procedure, courtesy, whatever else may come up, we don’t typically see those. So if you were to complain and say, “I thought the officer was rude to me, blah blah blah,” and that’s your only complaint, we would not see that.

What changes would you want to see in the process?

I think there’s a lack of transparency a little bit. Right now, the complainant gets a letter back that says, this was your complaint, this was how it was voted. It was either sustained, not sustained, exonerated or unfounded. But they don’t get, “it was exonerated because it fell within this policy.” They’re not given that information. And I think if I was a complainant, and I was to receive that letter, I would feel cheated.

For some reason, San Diego Police Department does not post its policies and procedures. I don’t know whether it’s the union or the department itself that is against it. I’ve been around almost seven years and I’m not sure. The discussion comes up periodically and they’re like nope, we’re not putting it up on the web. It just kind of gets dropped there.

The other thing I would like to see is sort of (an) electronic tracking system of all this. A complaint can come in, and we write up the complaint and we submit it over to Internal Affairs. Internal Affairs then makes a determination in Category 1 or Category 2 complaints. If it’s Category 1, it’ll come back through. If it’s Category 2, I never know what happens to that complaint.

I started this conversation a little over a year ago with (former SDPD Chief William) Lansdowne and he was like, well OK, we’ll look into it. Then he moved on and now we have the new chief and they just – it’s not a priority to them.

And I know they put a lot of money into the (officer body) cameras and into a lot of other stuff, but I think the information infrastructure at both the city and police department is very weak. Money really needs to be put in there, and the city will probably hate that I’m saying that as an unpaid city volunteer, but just the way that we track things is very manual. I have to try not to roll my eyes.

What’s one thing you think the public doesn’t understand about the CRB?

I don’t think that they understand that we’re a review process and not an investigatory process, and that we don’t go out and investigate a claim. But we welcome them to come in. If they see problems and deficiencies, we invite people to bring it into us and we can look into that and see if we can make change.

You mentioned body cameras. Have you been able to review any footage? Has that come into play in any cases?

Just starting to now, so we’ve seen two cases.

In what situations do you think that footage should be available to the public? When should that be out?

You know, I haven’t thought about that a lot. I know the department’s decision was that it is quote-unquote owned by the officer, so that it’s his. And again, this has to go back to the unions. I’m only speculating about it but it had to go back to the unions saying, this is his point of view, it’s what he’s doing, it’s his day basically.

This has been part of this national conversation in light of these protests around police brutality and officer-involved shootings. When there’s a broader public safety concern, would that call for it?

I haven’t thought about that at all because it hasn’t had anything to do with the board. I know that when it’s a piece of evidence, then we will get to see it. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other when others in the public could see it, I guess.

I’m willing to support either side – I could see an argument on both sides. So as long as we get access to it from the police board’s point of view, I’m happy with that.

Are you able to share the broad category of what those two cases you saw footage on were?

Most recently it had to do with force in arrest.

Was it particularly persuasive?

Yes. One of the things we’re noticing, and we brought it up last night at the meeting with the assistant chief … there’s an instant running loop, it’s running all the time but it doesn’t record until you hit the button, then there’s a 30-second buffer. It’s going to be a training issue because it’s not something that they normally do.

So we encouraged them, why aren’t we just recording constantly? More data, more information is better. And the assistant chief said yeah, we’re finding that.

I think they’re constantly looking at this policy, and they don’t know what it is and so if the public feels really strongly, they need to get in there and say this needs to be the change.

I haven’t thought it’s our role. I think when we see deficiencies, we can pass that on. The actual effect it’ll have, I don’t know.

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