The San Diego City Council Wednesday placed on the November ballot two conflicting proposals for the creation of a new civilian review board to guard against police misconduct.
Council members, warned by the Police Officers Assn. that they were facing the single most divisive issue in the city, opted to let the voters choose between a review board with subpoena powers as endorsed by the San Diego Charter Review Commission and a panel under the control of the city manager as supported by Councilman Ed Struiksma, a former San Diego police officer.
The council debated the alternatives for about three hours before voting separately on each proposal. Council members Ron Roberts and Judy McCarty were the only two council members to favor placing both measures on the ballot.
"Let the people pick and choose what they think is the best for this city," Roberts said. "That's the only fair way to do it."
McCarty said it is critically important that a new civilian review board, in one form or another, be established.
"People do not believe they are getting the police service they deserve," she said. "And if authority can't show respect, then how can the citizens? Authority has to be the model for respect."
Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who voted for the Charter Review Commission's proposal, said she is concerned that public confidence in the Police Department is eroding. She noted that just this week separate juries awarded a total of $165,000 in two cases in which citizens showed they were victims of police brutality.
"It's not getting better. It's getting worse," O'Connor said. "We are losing the confidence of the community and now it's costing us money. Now we're losing the confidence of the juries."
The only ingredient present in both proposals is that the police chief would be removed from the selection process for the board members. The current Civilian Advisory Panel on Police Practices, formed in September, has drawn sharp criticism from community leaders because its members were chosen jointly by then-Police Chief Bill Kolender and City Manager John Lockwood.
The proposal approved by the Charter Review Commission calls for the mayor and each council member to appoint one non-Police Department member to the review board. The panel would have its own staff and be empowered with the authority to subpoena witnesses and hold hearings at which witnesses would testify under threat of perjury.
The hearings would be private. Facts about individual cases would be forwarded only to the police chief and the city manager, along with a determination on whether the complaint was justified.
Voting for that proposal were O'Connor, Roberts, McCarty, Bob Filner, Wes Pratt and Abbe Wolfsheimer. Opposed were Struiksma, Bruce Henderson and Gloria McColl.
Under Struiksma's alternative, the review board would not have subpoena power, and the board members would not be appointed by the mayor and council. Instead, the city manager would appoint the members and establish the board's rules and regulations.
Supporting that measure were Struiksma, Henderson, McCarty, McColl and Roberts. Opposed were O'Connor, Filner, Pratt and Wolfsheimer.
Both proposals will now be included on the November ballot. City Clerk Charles Abdelnour was directed by the council to choose at random which measure will be listed first. The prevailing proposal will be enacted next July.
A snag, however, could develop if both measures receive a simple majority of the votes.
The Struiksma proposal carries an "exclusive authority" provision that could give it priority if both are passed.
But Asst. City Atty. Curtis Fitzpatrick said, "That's something we'll concern ourselves with later."
Also, both measures could conceivably be defeated by the voters, in which case the current Civilian Advisory Panel on Police Practices would continue to exist.
Sgt. Ron Newman, president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn., told the council members that his organization had hoped they would give the current review board two full years before deciding whether it should be replaced.
But after Wednesday's vote, he said his group would reluctantly support the Struiksma proposal, mostly to help assure defeat of the Charter Review Commission's measure.
He said rank-and-file police officers would feel threatened by yet another review board examining their actions, particularly one made up of ordinary citizens who, using subpoena powers, can force witnesses to testify about alleged police misconduct.
Newman pointed out that whenever an officer fires his gun, he already is investigated by homicide detectives, the county district attorney's office, the police Internal Affairs Unit and a shooting review board.
"Now this will be another review process where you're going to slap him with a subpoena and subject him to more public scrutiny," Newman said. "Believe me, this is the most divisive issue that ever hits a community."
Christopher Ashcraft, a POA attorney, said that many officers will see the review panel recommended by the Charter Review Commission as a threat to their safety on the streets.
"Officers might hesitate one moment, one fraction of a second, in the field because they feel they're going to be second-guessed by untrained civilians who don't understand the rules and regulations of a police officer," Ashcraft said. "That could mean life or death to a police officer."
Pratt did not buy that argument.
"I find that very troublesome," he said. "If they can't do their job, then maybe they should not be on the police force."
Pratt also said the need is critical for a strong civilian review board since there have been a series of questionable police shootings. He listed several, including Tommie C. Dubose, who was slain March 12 when police officers unexpectedly entered his home while serving a search warrant.