Police at scene of officer-involved-shooting
Police at the scene of the fatal officer-involved shooting in January. Courtesy OnScene.TV

The long and winding road to overseeing the actions of San Diego police officers with a new, reconstituted oversight panel has run into roadblocks, which could potentially delay implementation for as long as it takes President Biden to complete his four-year term.

“It’s an extraordinary length of time” to approve and bring to life a police review board. So says Cristina Beamud, executive director of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, who has led that city’s oversight panel for eight years.

Her experience has shown her that it typically takes from one to two years at the most to get a board up and running once approved by voters or by a representative council.  

Last Friday the latest step in the San Diego saga came in the form of a second plan for the new Commission on Police Practices. This was delivered to Henry Foster, chief of staff for Councilwoman Monica Montgomery-Steppe, whose office is charged with moving the panel forward.

The new plan and draft ordinance will be discussed in a special meeting of the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee on Friday, Jan. 21.

What has delayed the process, in part, is the seven-month-long undertaking by City Attorney’s Mara Elliott’s office to craft the first plan, which was then widely rejected by stakeholders as not reflecting voters’ intent when they approved a ballot measure in 2020 creating the civilian oversight panel.

In any event, a staff report prepared by the City Attorney’s office last fall said it would be January 2024 before the panel can begin work.

Miami’s Beamud wasn’t surprised. “The city attorney is not your friend,” she says. “They don’t want to invite scrutiny of their biggest and largest client — the police department.”

Now that a new plan governing the police review board has been proposed, the stakeholders are starting to square off over the details. A meeting last week of the ad hoc transition committee, tasked with easing the move from the old board to a new one, showed that tensions remain high. 

Patrick Anderson, a UC San Diego professor who is an interim member of the Commission on Police Practices, said he is adamant that whatever efforts are made can’t “just be a nod to the process,” stressing that “the community must have faith in our effort.”

Brandon Hilpert, on the same transition board, was not happy with how the communications were being handled.

“We keep getting screwed,” he said during  the transition committee discussion of the new plan.  

He clearly was directing his message to Montgomery-Steppe’s office.  He complained about a “lack of transparency” in the process. 

“Looks like you are doing whatever you want, not whatever the community wants,” Hilpert said. Foster responded by saying his complaints are “ill-placed,” adding that he does not control every element involved in the process of creating the new police oversight board.

A major flashpoint in the ongoing discussions is deciding who picks the volunteer commissioners to sit on the new board. Attorney Kate Yavenditti, who represents Women Occupy San Diego, which was one of the earliest supporters of a new police review board, offers one view.

“We don’t want them (commissioners) just chosen by the City Council, or by the mayor, by the politicians,” Yavenditti said. “We want community input on who the new commissioners are going to be. We also want community input in the choice of the new executive director.”

The position of the Police Officers Association is polar opposite, says president Jack Schaeffer.

“I think what makes more sense, is the council members finding people in their districts to do this, so letting the elected officials be the ones that determine who’s on the board,” he said. “We elect these people because we’re putting trust in them.” 

A proposed draft ordinance states in part that the City Council “must appoint members to the Commission, who reflect the diversity of the City” and no local law enforcement officer, current or retired, “may serve in the Commission.”

In Atlanta, the police board encourages community groups to nominate members, and community groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Urban League to each appoint an individual to the board to review police actions.

There are numerous other issues in play to be hopefully hashed out in the coming months. For instance, while both an independent legal counsel and independent investigators will be a part of any new board, what remains are questions about the investigative process itself.  For example, will an investigator from the board be allowed to visit the scenes of use of force incidents or police shootings? 

The proposed draft ordinance states that the new panel must prepare operating procedures for its investigators to “access Police Department investigations of officer-involved shootings, deaths resulting from interaction with police officers, and deaths occurring while a person is in the custody of the Police Department.”

The existing police panel, which remains in place while prepping the way for the new board,  was originally created in 1988 after the passage of a ballot measure by a thin 54% margin. Measure B, which voters approved  in 2020 to create the replacement panel, was overwhelmingly supported by a 3-to-1 margin.

In both elections — 1988 and 2020 —  the misuse of police power involving Black men was a catalyzing force. In the case of the first election, the push for change involved a popular young Black man, Sagon Penn, who was wounded  in an altercation during a police stop. Killed at the scene was a police officer, wounded was another officer and a ride-along passenger.

Penn was acquitted of murder at his first trial, and a second jury acquitted him of attempted murder and manslaughter charges. Thirty-two years later it was the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in another city that motivated the demand for reform.  

In Atlanta and other cities, attempts to create boards to oversee police actions were stymied by many of the same problems San Diego’s original review board faced. They lacked an investigative staff to do independent research, they didn’t have access to all details about individual cases, and volunteers were not willing to sit on the boards. An early effort in Atlanta was stymied when police refused to be interviewed by the board.

As told in “Case Studies on Civilian Oversight,” things changed after the Atlanta Police Department “stormed a gay bar without a warrant, detained patrons, and searched them illegally.” The Atlanta Citizen Review Board was then given subpoena powers and the police chief was ordered “to discipline any officer who refused to testify before the board.” The review board’s website shows how the organization is continually evolving and responding to changing conditions in their community.  

Says Miami’s Beamud, “This needs to be an issue the entire community needs to get behind, to recognize that it’s not just the African American community issue. Criminal justice issues are important to other groups, like white churches, even if it doesn’t affect them as much.”

She believes this is how a strong, effective board is started. Those entrusted to make this happen should be out in all communities talking about the value of this template for change, she stressed.

Behind the Scenes in San Diego

Meanwhile the stakeholders, like the  Police Officers Association, Women Occupy and San Diegans for Justice have lobbied council and mayor while waiting for the newest proposal to be presented and put into practice. 

The police union uses Edgewater Strategies to lobby for them, and a review of lobbying disclosure forms finds periodic visits to many City Council members, their staff and the mayor’s office. Initially the firm showed the union “opposed” to the reform effort but more recent filings say their position is “neutral.” They also reported giving campaign funds to current office holders Elliott, Mayor Todd Gloria and Councilman Stephen Whitburn.

Unlike the police union, the two nonprofits do not use professional lobbyists. But to be clear, it’s perfectly legal for the union to lobby on behalf of their membership, as they have the same rights as any organization has to lobby the government.

Schaeffer leads the 1,900-member police officers union, which includes the cops on the streets all the way up to captains in the force. Not unexpectedly, the proposed changes concern many police officers across the ranks. 

“We’re not against oversight. I mean, the POA has been not against oversight for a very, very long time,” Schaeffer said. “What we do want is, just like anybody else gets, is a non-biased approach, if that’s possible, something like a judge.”

Schaeffer is adamant that he doesn’t want bad cops on the force but does want a fair shake. And he feels that any officer under review should have the right to appeal any commission decision before anything is announced publicly.

“I want a fair process,” he said. “We don’t want just because somebody is doing a job that some people aren’t happy about that they focus on that officer and try to do something against them even though it’s a police policy”.

How to Get Involved

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.