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Expectations are high for the Justice Department’s review of the San Diego Police Department.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and other have billed it as an “independent audit,” a deep dive to get to the bottom of officer misconduct problems that have plagued the department the past three years.
Except it won’t be. What’s happening isn’t an audit or even an investigation of the department. It’s simply a review of SDPD’s policies. Officials at the firm doing the review took great pains to emphasize that at a community forum in Sherman Heights last week.
“We’ve not an investigative body,” said Kristen Hughes, a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, which is conducting the review. “We’re a research organization.”
That means, Hughes said, the firm won’t be assessing the department’s internal investigations on specific misconduct cases. It’s only examining whether the department’s procedures on those issues could be improved.
That doesn’t mean it’s a small task. Since March, the firm’s researchers have made multiple visits to the city, are going on ride-alongs with officers, holding community meetings and interviewing officials inside and outside the department. The firm expects to release its report in October with recommendations to prevent misconduct from happening again, Hughes said.
Other outside officials have suggested there’s room for improvement in SDPD’s policies. A federal judge noted that SDPD didn’t have a policy requiring officers to report misconduct in a civil case brought by a victim who was sexually assaulted by a police officer. (Zimmerman has since implemented one.) An expert hired by the victim’s attorneys also said the department’s procedures made it “nearly impossible” for an SDPD officer to be held accountable for misconduct.
But the issues with SDPD aren’t just about policies.
The department failed to seriously punish former Officer Anthony Arevalos, the cop at the center of the civil lawsuit, despite numerous red flags about his behavior. Julia Yoo, an attorney who frequently represents those with misconduct complaints against the department, said at last week’s meeting said the real problems with SDPD stem from a lack of enforcement when officers do violate policies. But that appears to be outside the realm of what PERF says it’s reviewing.
PERF’s effort isn’t the only review of SDPD happening right now. The FBI began a criminal investigation the same time PERF started its work. FBI Spokesman Darrell Foxworth said his agency is looking into allegations involving specific members of SDPD, not the organization as a whole.
“That is not on the police department,” Foxworth said of the investigation. “That is focused on individuals.”
Foxworth said the FBI’s civil rights division is handling the investigation, which centers on a group of crimes including sexual assaults committed by officers.