The police weren’t doing a good job of policing themselves. That’s the basic thrust of a yearlong Justice Department review of the San Diego Police Department released Tuesday.
Police and city officials had asked for the feds’ help after 17 officer misconduct cases in recent years and multiple lawsuits and criminal trials had uncovered evidence of systemic problems within the department for handling officer discipline.
The report largely confirmed those concerns.
“On a broad level, [researchers] did not identify any particular policy failure or common underlying factor that tied the misconduct cases together,” the report said. “Rather, it was gaps in policies and practices, a lack of consistent supervision at many levels and a failure to hold personnel accountable that allowed misconduct to occur and go undetected for some time.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who was hired in the midst of the misconduct scandal last year, pledged to implement the 40 reforms recommended in the report and emphasized that many were already being implemented.
Here are three key takeaways from the report:
Officers didn’t have adequate supervision and began gaming the system.
Zimmerman’s predecessor, former Chief William Lansdowne, rarely raised any red flags about how years of tight city budgets were affecting the department.
Yet, the report said that the department has consistently short-staffed its sergeant positions – the front-line supervisors who deal most directly with patrol officers. The department also regularly appointed patrol officers to be acting sergeants on a temporary basis, which led to conflicts in acting sergeants potentially having to discipline their peers.
Some cops figured out how to use these gaps to escape detection.
“At least one of the officers under review moved his shift time around every few months, presumably to avoid supervisors observing patterns of questionable behavior,” the report said. “A few veterans with the department … specifically sought shift times when supervisors were extremely busy and have less time to check in with their subordinates.” (A hat tip to U-T San Diego reporter Greg Moran for first finding this nugget.)
Both Faulconer and Zimmerman talked about the recent deal to boost officer pay and other efforts to recruit and retain efforts to remedy this problem.
Complaints slipped through the cracks.
The report zeroed in on one specific process: something called a public service inquiry.
The department created the public service inquiry in 2008 as an alternative to deal with less serious complaints in the field. It allowed an officer’s supervisor to resolve a minor complaint without any formal investigation.
The process, the report said, “creates several concerns, including an enormous amount of discretion on the part of the supervisor handling the complaint, the inability to track officer-specific [public service inquiries], and the lack of review by commanding officers.”
There also had been worries that department officials were using public service inquiries to shield officers from serious complaints. In 2010, the department initially classified a female detainee’s sexual assault claims against then-Officer Anthony Arevalos as a public service inquiry. That could have delayed her rape examination, which ended up being inconclusive. Arevalos wasn’t charged in that case and solicited sexual bribes from at least three other women while on duty until he was arrested in a different sexual assault case a year later.
Researchers recommended eliminating public service inquiries and funneling all complaints into a more formal investigative process.
SDPD didn’t hold officers accountable.
Misconduct within the department was hidden because cops weren’t held responsible for their behavior, the report found.
“Perhaps the most important lesson learned from this assessment is that the failure of the department’s leaders to adequately address smaller problems led to much larger issues,” the report said.
Arevalos’ case again makes this point. Department leaders missed numerous warning signs going back 15 years before Arevalos was ultimately arrested and charged with sexual assault in 2011.
The department inadvertently drew attention to its failure to hold Arevalos accountable with an awkwardly timed move announcing the promotion of Rudy Tai just a day before the report’s release. Tai is the SDPD supervisor most closely linked with failing to discipline Arevalos over the years, according to depositions and other information from the civil case against the Arevalos.
Tai was Arevalos’ supervisor in the late 1990s. Arevalos told Tai he’d flirted with a woman with mental disabilities in the back of his patrol car. Tai let Arevalos off with a verbal warning and didn’t document the incident. Other officers said in depositions they’d reported that Arevalos had taken naked pictures of the woman and one officer said he’d reported that the woman had put Arevalos’ baton in her vagina while Arevalos watched. Tai said in his deposition that he doesn’t recall being told of the more serious allegations and would have taken more severe actions against Arevalos had he known about them.
When Arevalos was arrested more than a decade later, Tai was in charge of the sex-crimes unit, which was handling the case. At the time, Tai didn’t tell his own investigators about Arevalos’ conduct with the mentally disabled woman. Tai said in a deposition that he didn’t think the incident was relevant.
Beyond that, during the 2011 Arevalos investigation, an investigator with the district attorney’s office worried that Tai had covered up the incident from the 1990s and was trying to slow down the sexual assault case against Arevalos, she said in a deposition. The investigator never approached SDPD about her concerns with Tai.
More recently, Tai had been serving as a lieutenant in charge of the department’s criminal intelligence unit. But earlier this week, Zimmerman promoted Tai to captain – one of the highest ranks in the department. Tai will have command over a unit, such as department investigations or traffic enforcement, but it’s not yet been decided where he’s going, department spokesman Scott Wahl said.
Wahl declined to comment on Tai’s involvement with Arevalos.