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One of the main goals of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board is to ensure law enforcement officials who break the rules or abuse their power are held accountable.
But over the last year, the group failed to hold its own leader accountable, according to documents and emails obtained by Voice of San Diego through a public records request.
The board’s executive officer, Patrick Hunter, resigned on Nov. 15. Nearly a year earlier, in a statement to the board, Hunter acknowledged that he’d dropped the ball on several key job responsibilities — including addressing a growing backlog of open death investigations. He told the board that if he didn’t make “measurable progress” by June, they could fire him.
But by June, little progress had been made, leading to canceled meetings and citizen complaints being dismissed. Still, Hunter retained his job. A timeline of issues related to Hunter was put together by his staff prior to a November meeting with the head of the county’s Public Safety Group, which includes the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s and probation departments, CLERB and the public defender, among others.
It’s not the first time a CLERB executive officer — a county staff position — has been accused of mismanagement. Carol Trujillo, who preceded Hunter, resigned in March 2010 amid a large backlog of uninvestigated complaints.
CLERB was created in 1990, via ballot initiative, to investigate complaints against county sheriff’s deputies and probation officers. Unlike the city of San Diego’s board, which reviews internal San Diego Police Department investigations, CLERB employs two full-time investigators, has subpoena power and publishes summaries of its findings. Investigators review evidence tied to a complaint and recommend findings to a board composed of volunteer appointees. The board then votes to either approve or reject the findings.
CLERB received 110 complaints last year.
When civil rights activists launched an effort two years ago to overhaul the city’s review board, they pointed to CLERB, which they perceived as having more power and more independence, as a more effective oversight model than the city’s board.
But the documents make clear that CLERB has its own problems that limit its effectiveness.
It’s not clear when problems under Hunter started. At CLERB’s Jan. 10 meeting, its first since Hunter’s resignation, board members expressed frustration over cases that had languished so long the board was forced to dismiss them under rules established by California’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which say that any allegation of misconduct that could result in discipline of a law enforcement officer must be investigated within a year. In 2016, more than 20 allegations stemming from five different complaints were dismissed because they’d languished for more than the one-year window (a single encounter can generate multiple allegations, for example, if an officer is accused of calling someone a racial slur and also hitting them, those would be two allegations stemming from one complaint). All of those cases, records show, had been assigned to Hunter. At CLERB’s February meeting, two more of Hunter’s cases, a total of 17 allegations, had to be officially dismissed.
According to the timeline put together by CLERB staff, in September, Hunter admitted that he’d “created a hostile environment.”
“‘Hostile = ‘lost control of the ship,’” the timeline says.
Hunter and his staff agreed to work things out in-house, the timeline says. They created a 21-point corrective action plan that Hunter agreed to follow. Among other things, the plan laid out steps to ensure that complaints were addressed in a timely manner and staff didn’t feel micromanaged by Hunter. But he “immediately violated” several terms, the timeline says.
At the board’s October meeting, Hunter took responsibility for the case dismissals, admitting that he’d had plenty of time to complete the investigations, but failed to take action.
“These dismissals were completely avoidable had I following the advice and recommendations” of CLERB investigators Lynn Setzler and Mark Watkins, Hunter told the board, according to a written statement.
“I was not so wrapped up in other duties or cases that would have prevented additional investigation in a timely manner,” he said. “I chose not to follow the process.”
While some of the dismissed allegations were minor, others were far more serious, involving complaints of excessive force by deputies, including an individual who alleged that more than a dozen deputies beat and Tasered him until he was unconscious.
The timeline put together by CLERB staff places some of the blame on the board’s chair, vice chair and secretary. The document says those three board officers were supposed to conduct a mid-year performance review to make sure Hunter was on track with key tasks. But Hunter pulled the review from the agenda, the timeline says.
In a brief phone conversation late last month, Hunter declined to comment and directed questions to the CLERB board. Board Chairwoman Sandra Arkin, CLERB’s designated spokesperson, said she couldn’t discuss Hunter’s resignation because it’s a personnel matter. She also disputed the claim made in the staff timeline that a subcommittee was formed to assess Hunter’s job performance. She said Hunter retired before the board had a chance to conduct a formal evaluation.
Michele Clock, spokeswoman for the county’s Public Safety Group, said via email that although CLERB staff had met with the group about issues with Hunter and requested an investigation, the group “as no oversight authority over CLERB or the executive officer.”
She declined to comment on the timeline staff provided to the Public Safety Group, saying it’s a personnel matter.
At CLERB’s January meeting, longtime CLERB investigator Lynn Setzler was appointed interim executive officer. Shortly after Hunter’s resignation, CLERB staffer Ana Becker implored Public Safety Group staff to consider making Setzler CLERB’s permanent executive officer.
“We have already gone through two unqualified EO’s,” Becker wrote in an email, “and it makes zero sense to keep going through this when we have our resources right in front of us.”
Clock said hiring a new executive officer will be up to the CLERB board.