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Rein it in, Citizens Review Board

What good is an independent body set up to monitor the Police Department, if it takes its marching orders from the department itself?

Here’s a radical idea: Instead of spending $200,000 to test body cameras on San Diego Police Department officers because Chief William Lansdowne needs proof that racial profiling is a problem, let’s give the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices actual power to do the job it was set up to do.

READ MORE: Takeaways From the Racial Profiling Hearing 

fix san diego opinionThe current board is the product of Proposition G, passed by voters in 1988 and designed to defeat the concurrent Proposition F, which would have given the board real teeth.

More than 25 years later, the now-eighth largest city in the U.S. has yet to update it.

In May 2012, the an Diego Grand Jury reported:

“The Citizens Review Board had been allowing personnel from the SDPD Internal Affairs Division to attend the board’s closed session meetings for several years. This could have an effect on the board’s independent decisions.

Interviewees told the grand jury that they have heard Internal Affairs personnel tell the board they never want any dissenting votes going from the board to the mayor or the chief of police.

Board leadership fosters a lack of decorum among its members, which is in direct violation of board bylaws. This has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation perpetuated by some board members. This contributes to a high turnover rate of prospective board members who are appointed to the board as vacancies occur. Board leadership is weak and lacks the will to control CRB meetings including the behavior of CRB members toward one another.”

To address the problems, the grand jury recommended that the mayor:

• Establish an independent interview committee for the selection of prospective CRB members, using questions determined by the mayor, to whom the committee would make recommendations directly.

• Appoint an independent, three-member team to investigate the current CRB executive leadership and evaluate the need to replace it.

• Immediately instruct the chief of police to ensure that Internal Affairs personnel stop attending CRB closed sessions.

• Reduce the consecutive one-year terms of CRB members from eight to four, to encourage ethnic and economic diversity.

The grand jury further recommended that the city attorney investigate deputy city attorneys assigned to the board, and evaluate the need to replace any of them. (Note: Read the board’s response to the grand jury’s report here.)

In April, nearly a year after the grand jury’s report, members of Women Occupy San Diego attended an information session for anyone interested in applying to serve on the board, as well as a board public meeting.

The required information session was held at San Diego police headquarters in the room on the ground floor used for media briefings, which has a separate entrance/exit. Despite this separate entrance, attendees had to sign in at the desk and wait to be escorted down a hall by uniformed officers.

In the information session, the “nominating committee” was introduced as current board members – not an independent interview committee, as recommended by the grand jury. From their description, it was clear that Internal Affairs had a central and overriding role in the board’s complaint review process.

As for the public meeting held in the Balboa Park Club, we were exposed to two examples of the “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” reported by the grand jury:

I suffer from hearing loss. I moved a chair to face the speaker, whose back was to the public attendees as he faced the board, so I could read his lips. After being challenged about sitting facing the speaker, and refusing to move (I explained why I needed to sit there), the board executive director chose to stand next to me throughout the remaining speakers, despite having several armed, uniformed police officers in the room.

Then, during a Taser demonstration by the police department, one of the female board members whooped and grinned. Lack of decorum, indeed.

The Citizens Review Board on Police Practices needs to reflect and represent all civilians whom police are supposed to protect and serve.

The police wield very wide discretion, which must be effectively checked by an independent body to which civilians can present their grievances for impartial investigation and corrective action.

It’s this overarching good government purpose that must outweigh the self-interest of the police department and city attorney to maintain their power and privilege.

Martha Sullivan is a resident of Del Mar Terrace in San Diego and a member of Women Occupy San Diego. Sullivan’s commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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