Police Critic Says S.D. Officers Use Brutality Also : Law enforcement: Former member of police review board writes that incidents like recent one in L.A. regularly happen here. Police Chief Burgreen calls statements ‘outrageous.’
The type of beating Rodney G. King suffered at the hands of Los Angeles police officers two weeks ago happens in San Diego “with a distressing degree of regularity,” according to a former member of the San Diego Citizen’s Review Board on Police Practices who has reviewed hundreds of police files.
“Dirty Harry may not be the image of an officer which the administration and the policy-makers wish to portray, but he is alive and well in the precincts, the patrol cars and many of the neighborhoods of San Diego,” former board member Don McEvoy wrote in a highly critical letter sent to San Diego’s chief of police, mayor, City Council and major newspapers.
McEvoy, 66, who served two one-year terms on the review board before being removed March 1, said police internal affairs investigators are inclined to “protect and defend” their own because they are investigating their “friends and comrades” and are eager to leave the unit and return to other assignments.
Police officers in San Diego “can get by with almost anything as long as they make sure there are not a lot of civilian witnesses hanging around watching,” wrote McEvoy, who retired in July as regional director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Police Chief Bob Burgreen called McEvoy’s statements “outrageous” and said his motive is political because McEvoy has continually pushed for a strong citizen review panel with the power to subpoena witnesses and conduct its own investigations.
Such a panel, with broad and independent investigative power, was approved by voters last year to oversee potential misconduct in the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
San Diego City Councilman Wes Pratt has requested that a similar board be put into place to oversee the San Diego Police Department.
“From the day he got on that board, it was his goal to create a different kind of review board,” Burgreen said of McEvoy. “Some of those statements are outrageous.”
Particularly galling, Burgreen said, is McEvoy’s assertion that San Diego police participate in the type of beatings that occurred in Los Angeles March 3, when King was struck 56 times with nightsticks and suffered numerous injuries.
Three Los Angeles police officers who allegedly participated in the videotaped beating and a sergeant who authorities say did nothing to stop them were indicted on felony charges this week.
In his letter, McEvoy said, “Similar treatment is meted out by officers of the San Diego Police Department with a distressing degree of regularity.
“I am convinced from my hundreds of hours spent reading internal affairs’ investigative reports and listening to the recorded interviews with victims and other witnesses that a significant number of these allegations had a factual and realistic basis,” he wrote.
An angry Burgreen said McEvoy “is living in a dream world and certainly has not been out on the streets. I have talked to cops with over 30 years’ experience here, and they say they’ve never seen anything that even remotely approaches what happened in Los Angeles and never will.”
Many of McEvoy’s observations were supported by Dr. Arthur Ellis, a San Diego State University professor and member of the review panel.
“Some of us have a high level of frustration with the evidence we get,” he said. “You get a straightforward instance of knowing someone has been brutalized and you are told (by internal affairs investigators) that he tripped and hit his head on the sidewalk. You know in your gut, deep down, that something else is going on. But you can’t interview witnesses, and it’s embarrassing and frustrating to sit through.”
In many instances, he said, it is the officer’s word against the word of the person who is complaining. The officer is always supported, he said.
Ellis said he will soon propose to the Police Department the creation of volunteer neighborhood watch groups dedicated to reporting police abuse and helping with law enforcement oversight.
He said, however, that he has no evidence that San Diego police have been involved in any of the large-scale beatings of people that McEvoy suggests.
Problems with the 20-member police review panel, created by voters in 1988, are well-documented. The board cannot interview witnesses, conduct independent investigations or make any of its specific findings public. Until recently, it had no staff and no telephone number to accept complaints.
Board members must rely on reports developed by internal affairs officers, who reviewed 216 complaints of excessive force for the year ending June 1, 1990. Of those cases, 198 were found to have no merit.
The review board agreed with internal affairs in every case, McEvoy said, although he himself disagreed in many instances.
McEvoy said he intended to serve a third term on the board but former City Manager John Lockwood, who appointed him, sent him a letter this year thanking him for his service. McEvoy said his term was not renewed but will not say why.
While he served on the board, the group had an oath of confidentiality, he said. Now that he is off the board, McEvoy said, it is time to speak out.
Board Chairman Murray Galinson said McEvoy has exaggerated the panel’s problems and said he has no reason to believe that San Diego police are abusing civilians.
“I think his conclusions are in error,” he said. “I think he has overreacted to somehow equate what happened in Los Angeles to generalize and say it’s happening in San Diego. What happened there was deplorable and prosecutable, but I have not seen it in two years chairing the board here.”