The Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board recently voted to dismiss 22 death cases without investigation. As the agency tasked with the crucial job of overseeing county law enforcement officials, CLERB’s egregious act provided no oversight. By dismissing the cases and refusing to find facts that could help prevent future deaths, no citizens nor law enforcement officers will be safer. No future risks and liability can be avoided.
San Diego County’s oversight process is broken. It’s time to fix it.
Having failed to prioritize death and excessive force investigations, CLERB has opted to summarily dismiss such cases when they exceed a 12-month statute of limitations – a statute that does not, and should not ever, apply to CLERB. The recent dismissals include the beating death of a 70-year-old frail inmate, the suicide of a 16-year-old girl in a juvenile detention facility jail suicides and lethal force deaths.
Citizens have a duty to oversee what government actions are done in their name.
After researching oversight models, the County Board of Supervisors selected the most independent civilian oversight model, which included subpoena power. Knowing employee groups would resist a strong oversight model, the board placed it on the ballot as a charter change. The measure won, and CLERB opened its doors in May 1992.
It set its highest investigative priorities as lethal force deaths in areas patrolled by deputies, jail deaths and serious injuries. Those are the most difficult cases oversight bodies investigate.
In recent years, though, CLERB stopped prioritizing deaths, serious injuries and significant losses. It has neglected to annually report trends, such as increased numbers of death, that become known each year through analyzing complaints and investigations.
CLERB’s mission is to increase public confidence in county law enforcement actions and officer accountability by conducting impartial independent investigations of citizen complaints and any deaths occurring in connection with actions of Sheriff’s Department or probation officers. By dismissing these cases, the agency is not serving its most basic function.
Instead of dismissing cases, CLERB must again start prioritizing the most serious cases – typically those involving deaths. The agency must also begin including in its annual reports the tracking and identification of trends its complaints and investigation uncover each year. CLERB board members need better training, and CLERB staff must be required to interview all witnesses in high-priority cases involving deaths. Until these changes are instituted, the agency will continue to fail to do its job.
Oversight bodies have backlogs: In fact, complaints and deaths that occurred after November 1990 were waiting when CLERB opened its doors in 1992. CLERB has had a backlog since. Expect CLERB to have a backlog moving forward. But backlogs should not include deaths and excessive force complaints. Those cases should be moved to the front of the agency’s list of priorities.
Civilian oversight conducted with impartiality and integrity leads to fewer deaths, injuries to citizens and officers, less harm to the community and lower taxpayer liabilities. When agencies like CLERB do their jobs well, it brings about the trust between citizens and those who police them.
Oversight is about reducing preventable deaths, injuries or serious harm in our communities. The job of a civilian oversight agency is as difficult as law enforcement. It demands volunteers bring their time, patience, integrity and painstaking scrutiny of details in order to make fair, firm and consistent decisions and recommendations.
If those who currently serve on the board aren’t up to the task, they should step down.
Sue Quinn is a past president of the National Association Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and worked for the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board from 1992 to 1997.