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Critics Find Chief’s Policy on Police Shootings Lacking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen’s $600,000 program to reduce the number of shootings by his officers falls far short of what his department needs to remedy the problem, including strict disciplinary action against police who violate the department’s shooting policy, several civic activists said Monday.

Burgreen unveiled the results of his four-month study on the use of lethal force Friday, in the wake of San Diego’s worst year for lethal shootings since 1985. With one week left in 1990, police have shot 28 people, 12 of them fatally. In some cases, suspects either have not been armed or were carrying objects other than guns--such as baseball bats, scissors or trowels--when shot.

Among other policy changes, Burgreen said he would increase training, purchase more police dogs, stun guns, rubber bullets and other equipment, and allow officers to fire warning shots or to back away in dangerous confrontations.

In addition, the department will start a public awareness campaign that seeks to explain to San Diegans what police officers do and what to expect when they are stopped by police.

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Some civic leaders complained that Burgreen’s recommendations did too little to address the lack of officer discipline after shootings.

According to statistics compiled by the department, only five officers over the past five years and through 110 shootings have been disciplined for not following police policy on lethal force. Police Cmdr. Bob Thorburn said none of the five had been fired, although he could not be specific about any of the reprimands imposed.

All discipline is administered by the department’s shooting review board, composed of three police commanders. Burgreen said Friday he is adding a citizen and a police officer of his choice to the review board.

But some say the city needs independent investigations of police shootings that do not include police personnel, so that officers understand they will be held accountable for their actions by an impartial review panel.

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“There’s not only a lack of discipline, but there’s a lack of information about what the discipline is,” said Mike Crowley, co-chairman of the an American Civil Liberties Union committee studying police practices. “And, if a shooting is justified, let’s get all the facts about what happened. If it is justified, what are they hiding?”

Crowley and about seven others, called the Citizens for Law Enforcement Accountability and Review, or CLEAR, say they want a police review board with strong investigative powers. In the meantime, they are suggesting changes to a county review board approved by voters in November to conduct investigations into the Sheriff’s Department.

The county board will have subpoena power and employ a full-time investigator to look into a variety of possible Sheriff’s Department misconduct.

After the county review panel is in place, Crowley said, the group will try to get a similar proposal on the ballot in the city of San Diego for the Police Department “to provide independent investigations and restore public trust.”

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Latino leader Roberto Martinez, of the American Friends Service Committee, said part of Burgreen’s proposal--such as having recruits spend several weeks with ethnic community organizations and to train recruits and officers more regularly--is well-intentioned.

But he said he is troubled that so few incidents of deadly force are prosecuted.

“Bringing in a special prosecutor from outside might change things,” he said. “Nobody brings charges against these officers. Not the district attorney’s office. Not the police. Not the FBI.”

The district attorney’s office has not prosecuted an officer involved in a shooting since 1984, in a case where the officer eventually was acquitted. Since then, the district attorney has cleared more than 100 police officers in shootings, in each case justifying the officer’s actions because a suspect posed a deadly threat.

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In announcing his recommendations Friday, Burgreen said he had invited Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller to send an investigator to the scene of each police shooting, but Miller had declined, saying he is satisfied with the existing investigation arrangement.

Miller’s office, therefore, will continue to investigate the results of shootings forwarded to him by the department’s homicide division. In a few cases, district attorney investigators conduct their own inquiry when they need additional information about a shooting.

Burgreen has repeatedly said that his officers have responded properly in instances when they shot suspects, and Friday he declared that “our (shooting) policy is as solid and good as any in the country. It is reasonable by all standards.”

And Burgreen said he knows that some will criticize his program, adding that “you can’t please everyone.”

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John Slotten, a member of the citizens CLEAR group, said Burgreen is unwilling to send “the message that needs to be sent. That the Police Department is using too much force, and it will not be tolerated.”

Slotten said too many San Diego police officers react badly to the slightest challenge from the public.

“As soon as you question authority, the (officer’s) flags go up and he’s going to prove that he’s badder than you are,” Slotten said. “Unless Burgreen’s willing to address that attitude, he’s just flapping his lips.”

A police citizens advisory board that made more than 100 recommendations earlier this month on the use of lethal force suggested that the department find out if police have a mentality that they must win in every confrontation.

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Burgreen said he will address the issue when he responds to the board’s recommendations early next year. He said police officers will be taught to back off in certain dangerous situations, instead of shooting.

The police chief said in Friday’s press conference that most of the suspects shot this year either have been mentally ill or had criminal histories.

Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee said he is unimpressed with such statistics.

“Just because someone is mentally ill or has a criminal history does not mean all of these shootings were justified,” he said. “In so many of these cases, police could have used better judgment. They give an order, and they’re not about to back off, right or wrong.”

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Burgreen’s proposal has a long way to go towards establishing better police-community relations, Martinez said.

“I would like to start out the new year by having people’s faith and confidence in their Police Department restored,” he said. “It goes without saying that there needs to be a respect for human life, human rights and dignity. That should have happened from day one.”


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