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County Lets Reporter Off Hook But Still Challenges Her '60 Dead Inmates' Series

Court papers argue that jail suicide rate was high, but not that high, and it may actually be impossible to put it into perspective. The journalist stands by her findings.

County lawyers are pressuring local journalist and VOSD contributor Kelly Davis to turn over her reporting on deaths in county jails.

San Diego County attorneys have pulled back on hauling a San Diego reporter into court over her investigation of an outbreak of suicides in local jails, after their attempt to do so earned a judge’s rebuke and scorn from journalists nationwide. Instead, they’re now challenging the reporter’s conclusion that the suicide rate here was the second-worst in the state among similar jail systems.

A statistician enlisted by the county has concluded jails here actually had the state’s third-worst suicide rate.

The argument, accompanied by a suggestion that it may be impossible to put San Diego’s jail suicide rate into perspective, appears in court papers filed last week in a lawsuit over the death of Kristopher Nesmith, an inmate who killed himself in a Vista jail in 2014.

“It’s fine for them to challenge our data — that’s their job, and the data is at the heart of this case,” said Kelly Davis, the journalist whose work the county is challenging. “But colleague Dave Maass and I used the formula that’s regarded by experts to be the correct one, and we stand by our findings.”

The widow of Nesmith is suing the county, arguing it failed in its obligation to protect him from himself. Her attorneys contend that the county was already on notice when he died, because of a series of stories by Davis and Maass in San Diego CityBeat alleging it had a serious suicide problem, but failed to act.

In 2013, the journalists began writing their series, “60 Dead Inmates,” about jail system negligence. The county recently subpoenaed Davis, now a freelancer and semi-regular Voice of San Diego contributor, and demanded she give up her sources and surrender notes and interviews. Davis enlisted attorneys fight the demand.

Journalists Decried County’s ‘Unconscionable” Reporter Attack on Reporter

The local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a journalism advocacy organization, denounced the county’s “misguided attack” on Davis as “unconscionable,” and other journalists from around the country rallied to Davis’s defense.

Journalists typically object to legal demands that they reveal their confidential sources and expose their unpublished research and findings. The state’s “shield law” would have protected Davis from being forced to testify. But this case is being tried in federal court, and the U.S. has no such law.

A judge ruled in her favor. The county has since decided against objecting to the ruling, and it is now final. However, the county continues to challenge the work of the two journalists with an eye toward convincing a judge — and, perhaps, a jury — that taxpayers are not responsible for the death of inmate Nesmith.

The reporting in the “60 Dead Inmates” series examined suicide statistics from 2007-2012 at the 10 largest jail systems in California and found that San Diego County jails had the second-highest rate in the state.

The first story in the series describes the statistical method the reporters used to analyze jail mortality rates as common and widely supported. The sheriff’s department at the time objected to the analysis and said another technique should have been used.

County Finds a Statistician to Weigh In

In the new court filings, the county enlisted Colleen Kelly, a statistical consultant and former San Diego State associate professor of statistics. In a declaration, she said a “more meaningful” statistical technique shows the jail system suicide rate was the third-worst, not the second-worse.

And, she writes, the numbers may have been thrown off because the county had an especially high percentage of white inmates, who are more likely to kill themselves behind bars. The suicide rate here among whites alone, she said was fourth-worst.

But, the statistician suggests, all this talk of second-worst or third-worst or fourth-worst may be moot because there were too few local jail suicides over the 5-year period to be analyzed properly from a statistical perspective.

Kelly’s criticism of the statistical analysis by the journalists reflect a long-standing debate among researchers over how jail suicide rates should be analyzed.

Christine Tartaro a professor of criminal justice at New Jersey’s Stockton University, is a critic of the statistical approach, which relies on the average number of inmates in jails per day. In an interview, she said it is flawed because it fails to take other factors into account like the sizes of individual jails and the ethnicity of inmates. It’s also “very difficult to compare oneself to other jurisdictions,” she said.

Multi-Millions May Be at Stake in Case

Tartaro said jail systems need to look beyond statistics to determine if they’re properly protecting inmates from themselves.

While some suicides are inevitable despite the best efforts of jailers, Tartaro said, most of  those who kill themselves show signs beforehand. In those cases, “if we go back and look at it, we could have found a way to prevent them,” she said, adding that “the facility absolutely needs to examine itself and see what’s going on.”

Davis has a similar perspective. “What matters is looking at individual deaths and asking whether they were preventable,” she said. Davis said her and Maass found “plenty of cases where jail staff screwed up and someone died.”

A lot is at stake in this case for the county and for taxpayers, who have been hit with multiple lawsuits over inmate deaths. The county recently lost two multi-million dollar lawsuits. And in 2017, the county grand jury criticized the Sheriff’s Department’s response regarding suicide prevention; the department’s response was mixed.

As for jail suicides after 2012, Davis said there were 5 in 2013, 6 in 2014, 6 in 2015 and 5 in 2016.

“Other jails systems, like Orange County and L.A. County, made policy changes to address inmate suicides. If we look at the years 2013 through 2015, two people committed suicide in Orange County jails,” she said. “During the same period, 16 people committed suicide in L.A. County jails. Between 2013 and 2015, 19 people committed suicide in San Diego County jails. That’s three more than L.A., where the jail system is three times larger.”

In San Diego, she said, “the county repeatedly told me they were revising their suicide prevention policies, but those policies weren’t officially updated until March 2016. There was only one inmate suicide in 2017.”

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