Two Potential Ballot Measures Seek to Reform Police Watchdog Group - Voice of San Diego

Public Safety UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Two Potential Ballot Measures Seek to Reform Police Watchdog Group

City Attorney Mara Elliott has proposed a modest change to the city’s oversight system for police officers. A group of activists has proposed a separate measure, supported by Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, that would make far more sweeping changes.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery (left) and City Attorney Mara Elliott / Photos by Adriana Heldiz and Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego voters could next year decide whether to make sweeping changes to the city’s oversight system for police officers.

The City Council is considering two potential ballot measures that would make changes to the city entity responsible for looking into police misconduct, including officer-involved shootings and deaths in police custody.

City Attorney Mara Elliott proposed one of those measures, a modest change that would give the city’s existing Community Review Board on Police Practices its own independent legal counsel.

The other measure, proposed by the group Women Occupy San Diego, is far more sweeping. It also has the support of Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who ran for office on a pledge to strengthen the city’s accountability of police officers.

It would shutter the existing review board and create a new entity to review deaths in police custody, officer-involved shootings and complaints against officers. Called the Commission on Police Practices, it would not only have its own legal counsel, but also subpoena power to conduct independent investigations, which the current board does not. It could also review discipline issued by SDPD before the punishment was implemented.

That measure is already coming under criticism from the San Diego Police Officers Association, the union for SDPD officers, which said it would actually reduce police oversight.

The two measures will go to the City Council’s Rules Committee on July 31. The committee could try to combine the two proposals or put them both forward, leaving open the possibility that the two measures on the same topic would appear alongside each other on the 2020 ballot.

“What is ultimately put before the voters is a policy decision up to the City Council, but it is my hope that whatever measure, or measures, the Council may place on the ballot not compete with one another,” Elliott wrote in a memo to Council President Georgette Gomez, who chairs the Rules Committee. “There are multiple ways to achieve this goal, including combining the proposals into one measure.”

In her memo, Elliott argued her measure is necessary because the city attorney’s office currently provides legal counsel to both city police officers and to the board investigating officers’ use of force.

“This important change is needed to ensure the public’s full faith in police oversight as well fair representation of our officers,” she wrote in the memo.

The activists’ measure, meanwhile, has been in the works for months.

Montgomery said she began working on it as soon as she took office following her election last year. Montgomery campaigned on the need for an oversight body that could conduct its own investigations, rather than relying on SDPD’s internal affairs, after an effort to qualify a similar measure for the 2018 ballot died because of procedural hurdles.

Montgomery agrees that the body tasked with overseeing police conduct needs to have its own legal representation, but said that alone isn’t enough.

“I think the key here is the independence, and the investigative powers,” she said. “I think that’s the key. That’s what I believe will be the difference.  We also have to ensure the commissioners have the time to properly investigate. So the caseload, we have to look at what that looks like. But the important thing is the independence, and the investigative powers.”

Montgomery chairs the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee, which handles police policies. The Rules Committee will decide whether the two ballot measures – or a measure that combines them – comes to her committee before being finalized.

“We would love to look at it, and make sure that it goes through the entire process so it can be on the ballot next year,” she said.

The measure to create a new Commission on Police Practices would include at least two representatives between 18 and 21 years old, and it would have the power to evaluate whether SDPD complies with local, state and federal laws and requirements.

The Police Officers Association had harsh words for that proposal.

“Over the past few years, we’ve worked with the advocates of this ballot measure on practical ways we could bring more transparency and accountability to police oversight in San Diego,” said Jack Schaeffer, president of the SDPOA. “Unfortunately, these reforms were rejected and they have put forth a measure that is poorly written, overly vague and ineffective at achieving its underlying goal of greater accountability. We believe this measure will ultimately provide reduced police oversight at far greater cost to the city.”

The union doesn’t oppose Elliott’s proposal to give the review board its own legal counsel.

Eva Posner, a spokeswoman for the Committee of San Diegans for Justice, a group supporting the more expansive reform measure, said both proposals seek to increase community trust in law enforcement, but that only one ballot measure should go forward.

“Conflicting measures would run counter to this goal, so I am confident the City Council will reconcile the measures by ensuring the city attorney’s desire for an independent counsel are represented well in the community’s proposal to form a new Commission on Police Practices,” she wrote in a statement. “We are looking forward to seeing a ballot measure that will be both fair and balanced.”

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