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What We Know About the Federal Probe of SDPD

The feds will be examining the department’s officer misconduct cases. There’s also a separate criminal investigation happening.

Monday morning, three U.S. Department of Justice officials announced the department would be reviewing the San Diego Police Department in response to a rash of officer misconduct allegations. This is what we know so far.

The city asked for this, but the feds say the review will be independent.

Over the next six to eight months, the Justice Department will be looking at the roughly 15 serious misconduct allegations that have arisen against SDPD officers over the past few years. The cases range from officer DUIs to serial sexual misconduct. The feds also will be reviewing SDPD’s internal investigation process, recruiting and hiring procedures and other areas.

Federal officials won’t actually conduct the review, though. The DOJ has enlisted the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research organization, to do the work.

“If you’re looking at training, then we want to make sure that the people who are going to be evaluating the training literally wrote the book on training,” said Ronald Davis, a DOJ employee who oversees the department of community-oriented policing. “If we’re looking at sexual misconduct and there are certain nuances with that, then we should have the expert to go with that.”

The DOJ is paying for the review – it won’t cost the city anything. The fact the city isn’t paying for it is one way to ensure the assessment will be independent, Davis said. All findings will be made public.

SDPD asked for the review to take place. Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said the department invited federal officials to see what it can do to better.

“We’re not just going to give an excuse that we hire from the human race,” Zimmerman said.

Local police departments asking for federal assistance is relatively new. Last year, Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey asked for a similar review of his department’s use of force. That effort is ongoing.

The feds aren’t dropping their biggest hammer on SDPD.

Federal justice officials have lots of ways they can intervene in local police departments. This is not one of the harsher ones.

The most serious step the Justice Department can take against a police department is to file suit over civil rights violations. That often leads to a court-ordered independent monitor of the department, which would oversee reforms.

Tony West, the associate attorney general and third-ranking official in the Justice Department, said SDPD hasn’t reached that stage.

“That’s one tool,” West said, “but it’s not the only tool.”

Not everyone agrees. A police accountability expert has argued for an independent monitor. Attorneys for a victim of former officer Anthony Arevalos are asking a federal judge to impose one.

Experts say independent monitors have a strong track record for imposing lasting reforms, but can be very costly. They also take power away from the department.

Ramsey’s decision to invite the Department of Justice to review Philadelphia police was seen as a way to ward off a more serious response. Zimmerman has made it clear she doesn’t believe SDPD needs a monitor.

A federal criminal probe is starting too – but we don’t know anything about it.

About midway through the press conference, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said something cryptic.

The U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI are leading an active criminal investigation into conduct within the SDPD, he said.

“We believe every rock should be turned over and if, and I do emphasize if, crimes were committed in addition to those already prosecuted, perpetrators should be brought to justice,” Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith didn’t elaborate after the press conference on what he meant or who was being targeted. He said he revealed the existence of the investigation so the public would understand it was separate from the federal review and so that no one would be shocked if federal subpoenas or other investigatory actions happened.  A U.S. attorney’s office spokeswoman also declined to comment on the investigation.

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