Outgoing Law Enforcement Watchdog Hopes Group Opens Up About Its Processes

Public Safety

Outgoing Law Enforcement Watchdog Hopes Group Opens Up About Its Processes

Paul Parker, who left his role as executive director of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board this month, says he hopes the board reconsiders its approach to the media and that current policies don’t always serve transparency goals.

A November 2017 meeting of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board. / Photo by Kelly Davis

When the county’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board hired Paul Parker in June 2017 to be its executive officer, he seemed like an ideal choice. CLERB independently investigates misconduct allegations against Sheriff’s deputies and probation officers, and the fact Parker had been a police officer for 10 years gave him credibility with law enforcement officials who are sometimes wary of civilian review boards.

Parker also spent two decades as a medical examiner investigator and coroner, most recently in Nevada’s Clark County, giving him expertise in CLERB’s crucial task of investigating deaths in county jails or during the process of arrest.

But the public never heard much about how those experiences shaped his approach to law enforcement oversight because he was never really allowed to speak to the press. He now says he hopes the board reconsiders its approach to the media and that its current policy of having the board chair serve as spokesperson doesn’t always serve transparency goals.

After Parker’s predecessor resigned amid allegations of mismanagement, board chair Sandra Arkin assumed the role of spokeswoman and kept that role after Parker was hired, even though previous executive officers were allowed to talk to reporters.

Parker left CLERB earlier this month to take a job as deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. In an interview last week, Parker — now free to talk about his time with CLERB — described the L.A. job as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that he couldn’t pass up. He said he left on good terms — with the board and with county law enforcement officials and staff.

Not being able to talk to the media was frustrating, he said.

“I think having the executive officer be that point person would be better,” he said.

Last November, when CLERB voted to dismiss 22 death investigations, Arkin was out of town and a county spokeswoman handled media questions. Parker wasn’t able to explain how he’d agonized over dismissing the cases but believed there was no other option based on a legal opinion from county attorneys that said any CLERB investigation not completed in a year must be dismissed. Some death cases had languished for years under previous leadership.

Parker says now that he would have thought twice about taking the job had he known he’d be facing case dismissals.

“I started researching the cases — what to do with them and to see if there was any way to keep them,” he said. “If I had known that I would have to recommend dismissing death cases, I probably would have given a lot more thought about taking the job.”

Parker said it was clear his predecessor, Patrick Hunter, didn’t prioritize death investigations. While a recent report by the San Diego County Grand Jury blamed the backlog on staffing shortages, CLERB’s response to the report put the blame on Hunter: “the failure to properly prioritize death cases resulted in the subsequent dismissals.”

After the dismissals, Parker said he focused on overhauling CLERB’s case management system to prioritize death investigations and complaints alleging physical injury at the hands of law enforcement. During his 14-month tenure, CLERB completed 30 death investigations —  compared with six in 2016 — and issued 15 policy recommendations. Between 2012 and 2016, the board made only 10 policy recommendations.

Recommendations issued under Parker include urging the Sheriff’s Department to change the language of an advisory given to pregnant inmates, telling them that, contrary to state law, they’d be shackled during delivery. And after multiple complaints that Sheriff’s deputies failed to intervene when opposing groups clashed during a July 2017 anti-Trump rally, CLERB recommended the department implement policies that would make political demonstrations safer without violating attendees’ First Amendment rights.

Death investigations turned up instances where deputies muted or ignored inmates requesting help via intercom, didn’t properly conduct inmate welfare checks and failed to get help for a suicidal man who later stabbed his wife and killed himself amid a SWAT standoff. And though CLERB has no jurisdiction over jail medical staff, investigative summaries issued under Parker highlighted instances where medical personnel failed to properly care for inmates. In one case, a chronic alcoholic wasn’t put on the jail’s alcohol detox protocol until more than 30 hours after booking. Another case summary described how medical staff failed to inform deputies that an inmate with a seizure disorder needed a lower bunk. The man was assigned to a top bunk, fell, and according to a complaint filed by his family, suffered serious brain damage.

Parker also opened investigations into all deaths in custody; his predecessor bypassed any death the Sheriff’s Department deemed “natural.”

“We were invoking jurisdiction on those cases,” Parker said, “because who knows if there are systemic issues that we could identify or make sure that everything was done appropriately — to see if we can prevent deaths in the future.”

Parker said he hopes CLERB will continue to be proactive. After an investigation into the treatment of mentally ill inmates in San Diego jails by watchdog group Disability Rights California, Parker drafted guidelines for CLERB investigators to conduct jail inspections — something the board’s rules and regulations have long authorized it to do. He said he’s “hopeful” the inspections will happen, but he believes CLERB will require additional staffing.

Arkin said in an email that it’s CLERB’s intention to move ahead with jail inspections.

Parker also wants CLERB investigators to be allowed to respond to death scenes and be part of any briefings on such incidents. And he’d like investigators to be able to meet with jail inmates who want to file a complaint.

“Many, many times, these folks will call us from the jails and then we’ll send them a packet and wait for them to respond and we don’t hear back from them,” he said. “Why not have the staffing, that extra position that will allow the investigator to go to the jail, get the signature right there so we can start investigating those cases?”

Sue Quinn, who served as CLERB’s first special investigator and, from 1995 to 1997 as its executive officer, said Parker made a big impact on law enforcement oversight in a short time and described his departure as a “big loss to San Diego.” CLERB’s 2017 annual report, Quinn said, was “the most transparent, most useful to the community than any annual report CLERB’s issued in 20 years.”

She said she hopes CLERB will keep focus on death investigations, especially given a recent uptick in inmate suicides — four inmates have hanged themselves in county jail cells in the last eight months.

“Keep a big, red flashing light on the deaths,” Quinn said.

CLERB voted last week to appoint special investigator Aron Hershkowitz to be its interim executive officer and plans to select a permanent replacement on Dec. 11, Arkin said.

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