Late at night last August, Kacie Bluhm returned to her downtown apartment after an evening out with work colleagues to find people trying to get into her complex. That’s where the arguments about what happened that night begin.
Bluhm, now 30, said she was confused about whether one of the men outside was a police officer, and said he wouldn’t say why he was there. But the San Diego police officer, George Smith, was in uniform and he insisted he had made himself clear: He needed access to the building to investigate a possible domestic violence incident inside. Bluhm said the man was threatening. Smith said the situation was urgent. A few minutes passed, and Bluhm told Smith she didn’t feel comfortable letting him in, but she was going to inside to sleep.
Everyone largely agrees on the most basic facts of what happened next. Bluhm opened the door and Smith tried to get into the complex behind her. Bluhm tried to shut the door on him. Smith grabbed, handcuffed and arrested her for resisting him, and eventually took her to the Las Colinas women’s jail.
But in the details, the stories diverge dramatically. Bluhm said the officer left her bruised, held her in his car an unnecessarily long time, refused to allow her to make a phone call or use the bathroom and didn’t explain why she was being arrested until after it happened. The experience, she told a police community forum in July, scarred her.
“Every time I walk through my front door, I have to think about it,” Bluhm said. “I have to deal with the fact that the only person in my life who has ever abused me is a San Diego police officer.”
For police, the incident was only remarkable because of Bluhm’s actions. Though the domestic violence incident turned out to be a false alarm, the cops didn’t know that at the time, department spokesman Kevin Mayer said.
“Ms. Bluhm’s complete lack of assistance to the officers had the potential to be absolutely devastating to the female in the domestic violence call,” Mayer said. “This year alone, four people have been murdered in connection with domestic violence and the department takes each reported case very seriously.”
There are some inconsistencies in Bluhm’s version of events, but witnesses also back up key aspects of it.
Most notably, and though a timeline might be difficult to recall, Bluhm describes the incident from start to finish as occurring over a roughly 15-hour period. But records indicate the whole experience took less than 10 hours. SDPD also released records that indicate the officer only took six minutes to transport her from the apartment complex to a secured area where prisoners are processed before jail, significantly shorter than Bluhm said. Paul Pfingst, a former district attorney who’s now a criminal defense lawyer, told me that once Bluhm opened the door to the complex, he didn’t believe she had the right to deny the officer entry.
The manager for the apartment complex’s homeowner association, however, told me that SDPD should have had an emergency access code to the building, the same way that postal carriers do. So police shouldn’t have needed anyone’s help to get inside. (Mayer, the SDPD spokesman, said police didn’t have the code.)
And two witnesses to the incident largely confirmed to me Bluhm’s account of what happened outside the complex: Aside from her reluctance to let him in the building, Bluhm wasn’t resisting the officer, the officer aggressively grabbed her and hit her forehead on his squad car when he was putting her inside. Neither witness believed that Bluhm deserved to be arrested. And Bluhm was never charged in the case.
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Certainly a more thorough investigation by police could connect some of the dots between Bluhm and Smith’s wildly different accounts. But it’s taken a while to get one. Bluhm never filed a formal complaint with the department, saying she was scared of retaliation. The department, though, has heard concerns about what happened for a while.
A witness at the scene spoke with a sergeant outside the complex later that evening and was critical of Smith’s treatment of Bluhm. Bluhm herself retold her version of the events at the July forum, which was part of the Department of Justice’s review of misconduct problems surrounding the department. Neither instance triggered any action by the department.
Initially, when I contacted the department about the incident last week, Mayer responded by pointing out holes in Bluhm’s story. In a follow-up, he said the department would look into the matter further.
“The San Diego Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit will reach out to Ms. Bluhm,” Mayer said.
But any further action will come more than a year after a witness complained and almost three months after the victim herself shared her story at a public forum specifically designed to bring problems about the department to light.
The Police Department has faced numerous charges of officer misconduct in recent years, and one of the biggest criticisms to surface from those incidents is that the department doesn’t take officers to task for their misdeeds. Experts and attorneys have said the source of the problem is a complaint procedure that favors dismissing citizen complaints over accountability.
One expert hired by the victim of a sexually abusive officer found that SDPD reported only four serious complaints based on community allegations against officers were sustained in a recent four-year period. The report from Jeffrey Noble, a former deputy police chief in Irvine, remains sealed as part of a federal civil case against the department. But the judge in the case quoted from it in a ruling.
“Such a low number of sustained complaints could mean that the officers of the SDPD are extraordinarily well behaved and they are performing their duties appropriately, or that the SDPD has systemic issues in their complaint and investigatory processes that makes it nearly impossible for an officer to be held accountable for their misconduct,” Noble wrote, according to the ruling.
Noble found that the department didn’t have a mandate to accept all complaints and, most significantly, allowed supervisors in the field to dissuade people from submitting them.
In one notable incident from 2010, an arrestee said that former officer Anthony Arevalos sexually assaulted her while transporting her to jail, but Arevalos’ supervisor initially didn’t treat her claim as a complaint. That led to delays in investigating Arevalos, one of the many criticisms from officers and prosecutors about how that criminal case against him was handled. Arevalos was cleared both criminally and in an internal affairs complaint and afterward solicited sexual bribes from at least three other women before he was finally caught.
Since she was hired in March, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman has created a new policy to require officers to report the suspected misconduct of their peers and reinstituted an internal police investigatory unit. New police body cameras and increased spot-checks on officers by supervisors also are designed to increase accountability.
But even in recent cases, citizens have alleged the department hasn’t taken their complaints seriously. Last week, SDPD said it would initiate an internal investigation after video emerged showing an officer hauling a teenager to the ground last October. But the teenager’s mother and attorney said they previously filed a complaint with the department, and no one had followed up before. Last month, a City Heights man said two officers, including the captain of the Mid-City division, tried to dissuade him from filing a complaint about officer conduct following an incident at his home.
In Bluhm’s case, the department should have been investigating the incident even without a formal complaint, said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert in police accountability issues.
“Ideally, a police department should investigate whenever they have ANY kind of evidence that misconduct occurred,” Walker told me in an email. “But this is not standard practice. The general approach is for them to hide behind the fact that no formal complaint has been filed.”
These are the kinds of issues that should be addressed in a much-anticipated Department of Justice review of the San Diego Police Department. The report will examine the department’s practices on handling complaints, hiring procedures and other matters. SDPD asked for the DOJ’s involvement and the review has been outsourced to the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a Washington D.C.-based firm. A final report is expected by the end of the year.
Bluhm recalled her experience at the July community meeting in Sherman Heights, which PERF had hosted. Her account is moving, and you can listen to what she said below:
You can compare her description to Smith’s arrest report here.