Both sides agree that few issues so trigger public passion like an independent civilian review board to monitor police misconduct.
“History has shown,” said Ron Newman, president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn., “that this topic will be the most hotly debated one to ever come before the voters and will divide this community.”
Added Jim Johnston, a member of the San Diego Charter Review Commission: “This was the one issue with the most interest. We met twice a week, and every time it was a packed hall. This is what was on everyone’s mind.”
But the agreement stops there between the supporters of Proposition F and their counterparts, the backers of rival Proposition G. Regardless of which ballot measure triumphs Nov. 8, the public still will not know the results of individual complaints lodged against police, because state law protects the confidentiality of those records.
Proposition F, which was developed during hearings this spring by the Charter Review Commission, calls for a new review board made up of nine members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The panel would have its own director and staff, and would be empowered 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 sent to the police chief and the city manager, along with a recommendation on whether the complaint was justified.
Councilman Wes Pratt, one of Proposition F’s main supporters, says a review panel that has subpoena powers and that is chosen independent of the Police Department would assure the public that complaints are being seriously investigated.
As for the competing measure, Pratt said it offers little improvement over what is now in place.
Proposition G was sponsored by Councilman Ed Struiksma, a former San Diego police officer who won City Council approval this summer for the alternative.
No Subpoena Powers
It calls for the review board members to be chosen by the city manager, who would then set the new group’s rules and regulations. The panel would not have subpoena powers.
The Struiksma proposal also carries an “exclusive authority” that gives it priority if both measures receive a majority of the vote.
If neither proposal receives a majority, the Civilian Advisory Panel on Police Practices, which since its creation a year ago has been stung by heated public criticism, will continue in place.
The current panel has suffered most from public perception. Immediately after then-Police Chief Bill Kolender participated in the selection of the board’s appointees, community leaders, particularly those in the minority neighborhoods where police-community relations have been strained, ignored it as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Police Department.
A key point of debate between the two new proposals is how much access, if any, the boards would have to police files.
Police and POA officials argue that because, under Proposition F, members would be chosen by the mayor and council, confidential internal police records could not be shared with the board. They point to a recent state attorney general’s opinion that prohibits the public dissemination of internal police files. (However, police departments around the state, including San Diego’s, say the law needs to be changed so that, at a minimum, statistics about complaints and their resolution can be made public. The Legislature is expected to take up the matter next year.)
If Proposition F passes, the POA has said, it will file a lawsuit to make sure the internal files are not released to the new board. Should such a lawsuit prevail, it could gut the strength of the new board.
Proposition F backers Pratt and Johnston seemed unclear in a recent interview exactly what would happen if the Police Department refused to turn over its internal files to the new board.
“Once this body is constituted, we’ll set up our processes and procedures,” Pratt said.
Under Proposition G, the POA said, internal police files could be shared because the panel’s members would be selected by the city manager, who directly supervises the police chief.
Beyond that skirmish lies the greater problem of public perception, which both sides agree must be improved if any police review system is to be successful.
Pratt and Johnston hope that Proposition F, with its subpoena powers and formal hearings, will remove any public distrust caused by the current panel.
‘It’s That Important’
Pratt predicts that the public will see a totally objective panel under Proposition F because it would be separate from the Police Department and make its own decisions based on the testimony of witnesses and the weighing of evidence.
“It’s that critical to the future of San Diego,” Pratt said. “It’s that important.”
Proposition F was patterned somewhat after the Police Review Commission in Berkeley, which was established by city initiative in 1973.
That nine-member panel is chosen by the City Council, as would be the case in San Diego under Proposition F. But it differs in that the group’s hearings are public, and police officers can be fired if they do not honor subpoenas.
In addition, the board’s findings are made public because the Berkeley board does not review internal police files.
“We have jurisdiction over every complaint that comes in,” said Eileen Luna, chief investigator and administrator of the Berkeley commission.
“An investigation is done and a report issued. We issue that report publicly. And then there is the public hearing. Then, after the hearing, the commission makes a decision as to whether the police officer acted properly.”
The report goes to the city manager, who also receives an independent evaluation of each case prepared by the police internal affairs bureau, Luna said. The city manager determines whether discipline is appropriate, and the police chief decides what level of discipline to give the errant officer.
Luna said her commission and the internal affairs bureau end up agreeing in 80% to 90% of the cases, with both groups sustaining about 30% of all complaints.
“Our success depends on what kind of faith the public has in the process,” she said. “If the public believes the police are being held accountable by this process, then I think it can go a long way to make people feel the police are being acceptable and the situation is under control.”
Proposition F would not necessarily force San Diego police officers to testify, even under subpoena.
Police Cmdr. Calvin Krosch and Newman, the POA president, said it is doubtful whether most police officers, if any, would speak freely in the closed hearings without invoking their privilege under the Fifth Amendment.
They noted that, because some complaints result in criminal prosecution against the officers, most of the officers’ attorneys will advise them not to discuss the complaints with the review board.
‘We Can Order Them to Talk’
“But when IA (internal affairs) calls an officer in, we can order them to talk or be subject to insubordination,” said Krosch, the longtime head of the internal affairs unit who recently took over the public affairs unit.
Finally, there is the question of cost.
Newman sharply criticized Proposition F as too expensive, saying it would create a $1-million-a-year review board, while Proposition G would cost roughly $48,000 a year.
However, Luna, the Berkeley commission director, said her annual budget is $167,000, which covers four staff people and nine commissioners. She said Proposition F in San Diego could probably be funded for about the same amount.
The Rev. George Walker Smith, spokesman for the current review board, said cost is one reason he supports Proposition G. And he has one other reason, too.
“I’m supporting G because I think that it’s the most appropriate one,” he said.