This post has been updated.
A new report by the San Diego County Grand Jury questions a decision by the watchdog group that monitors county law enforcement to dismiss 22 investigations involving people who’d died in jail or during the process of arrest. The report urges the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, which justified the decision by saying state law required it to dismiss the cases, to seek new legal advice.
The Grand Jury “received conflicting opinions,” the report says, as to whether the California Public Safety Officers Bill of Rights — the law CLERB cited when it dismissed the cases, which says investigations into alleged police misconduct must be completed within a year — even applies to citizen review boards. The report also questions whether it was appropriate for CLERB to seek advice from the Office of County Counsel, which is representing the Sheriff’s Department in lawsuits involving at least three of the dismissed cases.
“Depending upon the death cases involved, County Counsel may not have been the appropriate adviser if there was a question of county liability,” the report says.
CLERB’s budget includes money to hire outside legal counsel.
The report says the inquiry was spurred by news stories last November about CLERB’s decision to dismiss the cases. As we reported then, many of the 22 cases had languished for years and involved serious allegations of misconduct and policy lapses, including that law enforcement officials ignored repeated suicide threats from mentally ill jail inmates and used unnecessary lethal force during arrests.
Sue Quinn, who served as CLERB’s first special investigator and, from 1995 to 1997 as its executive officer, told us at the time it was “shameful” that CLERB hadn’t been prioritizing death investigations.
The new report echoes that thinking: “Death cases should not have been set aside,” it says.
The Grand Jury blames a “lack of supervision” by the board as the reason cases became backlogged. The board, which is composed of 11 volunteers, has authority over a full-time executive officer who supervises a team of investigators. Though he’s not named in the report, former Executive Officer Patrick Hunter resigned in November 2016, months after essentially asking the board to fire him. Documents obtained last year through a public records request show that Hunter acknowledged he’d dropped the ball on key job responsibilities and allowed dozens of death cases to pile up.
Those records also showed that members of CLERB’s investigative unit brought their concerns about Hunter to county leadership. The Grand Jury report mentions this: “The Public Safety Group’s Human Resources Staff, when informed of problems and conflicts within CLERB and its investigative unit, left unresolved issues brought to their attention by CLERB’s county employed staff.”
The county’s Public Safety Group is an umbrella entity that also includes the sheriff and probation departments. The report recommends that CLERB be removed from the group to provide the board with more independence.
“CLERB is the separate set of eyes expected to ensure transparency of the activities of the Sheriff’s and Probation departments,” the report says.
CLERB chairwoman Sandra Arkin said the board felt it had a handle on the investigative staff and its caseload.
“In hindsight, things could have been done differently,” she wrote in an email. “The board has and will continue to institute and improve policies and procedures to ensure that proper oversight on current and future cases is administered, through the executive officer.”
As for the recommendation that CLERB be removed from the Public Safety Group, “CLERB’s alignment in the county organizational chart does not hinder its ability to independently investigate cases,” Arkin said.
Paul Parker, who took over as executive officer last July, declined to discuss CLERB’s vote to dismiss the 22 cases, citing attorney-client privilege. But he said that since he was hired, he’s done an assessment of CLERB’s internal practices and instituted changes to allow for better monitoring of CLERB’s caseload. He also requested and received funding to hire a third investigator to address the case backlog.
He’s also made death cases a priority, which the Grand Jury report acknowledges.
This post was updated to include comments from CLERB’s board chairwoman that were sent after this post initially published.