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Committee Backs Plan for Advisory Police Panel

Times Staff Writer

Spurred by complaints of decaying relations between the San Diego Police Department and Southeast San Diego blacks, a City Council committee Wednesday unanimously approved plans to create a 15-member citizens’ panel to monitor police activities.

The panel, as conceived by Councilman William Jones, would have little, if any, authority over the Police Department, as citizens’ commissions and review boards do in many large cities.

Instead, the San Diego Citizens’ Panel on Police-Community Relations would be strictly advisory, giving citizens the opportunity to influence departmental administrators on law enforcement policy, Jones said.

The panel is similar to the city’s Community Relations Board, which existed for about two years in the mid-1970s.

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“It is not anti-police,” Jones stressed during Wednesday’s hearing of the council’s Public Services and Safety Committee. “It focuses on the need for citizens to have a positive influence . . . We need the police, and the police need us.”

At the same time, Jones said, he is researching whether the city’s Civil Service Commission should be involved more actively in complaints made against the Police Department.

“We have probably the best police chief in America and a police force that is about 95 or 98% good,” said Jones, whose 4th District includes virtually all of Southeast San Diego. “It is that other few percent that worries me.”

Police Chief Bill Kolender, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, said he generally supported Jones’ proposal for a citizens’ advisory panel--as long as the panel is precluded from setting Police Department policy or ruling on whether specific police activities are proper.

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Kolender said he opposed making the panel permanent, which Jones favors. “It’s not something that’s needed forever,” Kolender said.

The chief has previously said that he opposes formation of a more-powerful citizens’ review board, which he scornfully dismissed as a potential “kangaroo court.”

Police shootings, complaints and other officer-related controversies are best investigated by the Police Department and the district attorney, Kolender believes.

Residents of Southeast San Diego, particularly blacks, have argued that their relations with patrol officers have reached new lows in the weeks since the March 31 shooting death of San Diego policeman Thomas E. Riggs.

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Some witnesses to the shooting have alleged that Riggs’ accused killer, Sagon Penn, who is black, was provoked and beaten during a traffic stop by another officer, Donovan J. Jacobs, before Penn wounded Jacobs and killed Riggs. Penn also has been accused of wounding Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a civilian observer who had been riding with Riggs.

The incident produced an outpouring of police brutality allegations from Southeast San Diego residents, many of whom contend that patrol officers have historically treated them roughly.

Under Jones’ plan, the citizens’ panel primarily would “endeavor to promote and encourage open communication and cooperation between the Police Department and residents of the city. The panel shall also develop and conduct activities directed toward increasing the community’s awareness of those rights and responsibilities of citizens when coming into contact with police officers.”

Further, the panel would “function as an effective vehicle for community participation in the review and formulation of policies . . . to make law enforcement more sensitive, effective and responsive . . . and shall actively encourage and foster citizen participation in crime prevention activities.”

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San Diego’s eight City Council members would each nominate three people to the panel, and the mayor would select one nominee from each council district. Other panel members would include the police chief or his representative; a police patrol officer; a police union representative; a human relations expert, and a member of the judiciary. The remaining two members would be selected from social service, corrections, probation and other, related fields.

Members would serve two-year terms and would not be paid.

The panel would make recommendations to the City Council and mayor on ways to improve relations between the community and police officers, Jones said. It would also review the process used to investigate allegations of police misconduct and would study methods to improve the human relations training that all officers receive.

Jones said he hopes that the panel would “encourage the retention of those officers in a neighborhood who are considered . . . to be attuned to the special needs of that neighborhood.”

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Kolender, however, bristled at that suggestion, saying it was his job to determine where individual officers should be stationed. “That, sir, is my prerogative,” Kolender told Jones Wednesday.

Plans for the community relations panel will be considered further at a July 8 meeting of the City Council’s Rules Committee.


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