San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Within hours of protesters being tear gassed Sunday in downtown San Diego, criminal justice advocates were renewing calls for an independent commission on police practices that would have sweeping powers to investigate uses of force.

Elected officials began lining up to take sides on a potential ballot measure and offer opinions on why tensions in the city were escalating. City Councilman Chris Ward expressed concern over the San Diego Police Department’s tactics, prompting a response from the officers themselves.

The union demanded that Ward stop using “divisive words” and instead praise them for their efforts to maintain peace.

Not long ago, however, an outside law enforcement group with the financial backing of federal authorities was critical of the city’s ability to monitor its own. No one accused the U.S. Department of Justice then of being out of line. And when the recommendations for reform were spelled out, police leaders agreed publicly that the change was overdue.

A 2017 memo signed by then-Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and then-Chief Operating Officer Scott Chadwick informed the city’s public safety committee that all 40 of the proposed changes had been put in place. Yet behind closed doors, according to one former elected official, Zimmerman dragged her feet on implementation and was defensive. She wound up firing 11 cops, but the reforms proposed by the DOJ-backed group took more than two years to completely implement.

A review of public safety committee agendas after the reforms went into place shows that, while elected officials continued to talk about recruitment and training, they didn’t publicly question police leaders about how those reforms were working out.

Going forward, City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who took over the public safety committee in early 2019, has said she would make police accountability a priority, as well as a review of the city’s use of force policies. She’s now among the officials advocating for new citizen oversight of SDPD.

The initial invitation for scrutiny came in 2011 after a wave of officer arrests and convictions, some of which involved sex and domestic violence-related crimes. At the request of then-Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, federal authorities tapped the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, to evaluate SDPD’s internal procedures. Lansdowne called it an opportunity to reinforce the department’s values.

By the time the report was released in 2015, the city had experienced another wave of headline-grabbing officer arrests. Zimmerman, who by then had succeeded Lansdowne as chief, created a policy that required officers to report misconduct and a new Prisoner Transport Unit that would assist field officers in bringing female suspects to the detention center.

She also reinstated the Professional Standards Unit, an anti-corruption team that works separately within SDPD to sniff out misconduct. The department had formed the unit following the Rodney King beating in the early 1990s. Lansdowne quietly disbanded it a decade later for what he said were financial reasons.

The unit played a key role last summer in the arrest of a sergeant who was accused of enticing a minor for sex online.

PERF’s nearly 200-page report looked positively at the reinstatement of the “proactive” Professional Standards Unit but included a passage that sounded skeptical of the city’s outside oversight body: the Citizens’ Review Board. Created by ballot measure in the 1980s, its purpose was to evaluate both complaints brought by members of the public against officers and the department’s response to those complaints. It also reviewed officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths and police actions that result in death.

The makeup of the review board caught the eye of PERF’s staff. The review board’s 23 members, the report noted, were often selected by the mayor, and the review board’s manager was a city employee who reported to the mayor (who also nominated the police chief). PERF noted that the review board had been “presented as an independent and impartial body.”

But the nonprofit stopped short of advocating for meaningful changes to the board’s structure. Rather, it made 40 recommendations for tracking officers within the department and handling investigations and for improving relations with communities.

For example, PERF suggested that the entire chain of command should have access to negative performance reviews and civil lawsuits against individual officers as part of an “early intervention system.” Supervisors would be required to review their employees on a monthly basis and look for signs of problematic behavior before it manifested into something more severe.

But when the public has gotten rare glimpses into how the system is working, the results are often troubling. As case after case has demonstrated, supervisors routinely miss red flags. And even when they did take a closer look at an officer’s history and found something concerning, they weren’t required to follow up or provide written record.

In one notable example, court records showed that Internal Affairs never even interviewed Officer Neal Browder after he killed an unarmed, mentally ill man. Browder said the shooting didn’t come up during his performance review, either. The fatal shooting took place in April 2015, approximately a month after the PERF report was released publicly.

PERF also suggested that police conduct beat-level “customer” satisfaction surveys and “identify ways to measure whether personnel are applying the principles of community policing and procedural justice in carrying out their duties.”

Before the report was completed, some of PERF’s recommendations had already been implemented. They included a new and truly randomized drug testing cycle, cultural sensitivity training for police who work with community leaders and a strengthened recruitment and backgrounding process.

During the review, PERF had been advising SDPD of its findings and so the final report gave a sense of what had already been accepted and altered. Whether PERF was satisfied with SDPD’s actions is another question entirely. The nonprofit did not respond to VOSD’s interview request last year while working on a series of stories about cops with criminal records and did not immediately return a message for comment Tuesday.

At the very least, the city’s public safety committee in July 2017 gave every indication that it was satisfied. At the third and final update on how the PERF recommendations were being implemented, City Councilman Chris Cate, then the chair of the committee, asked Zimmerman about her ongoing conversations with PERF. She promised to pass along information to PERF about the changes in San Diego.

That was that. None of the other members of the committee asked any questions.

The internal changes, Zimmerman noted elsewhere in the meeting, would help make the city a safer place. She added: “I also want everyone to know we will continue in our effort to look for best practices and everything we do to ensure we are the finest police department on our planet.”

When asked about the George Floyd killing on a recent sports show, Zimmerman said she’d been upset by it and wasn’t sure any amount of training for the police officers involved would have changed the outcome. The main question for her, she said, was whether the Minneapolis Police Department had hired bad people or whether the officers had at some point turned bad.

Everyone in law enforcement, she said, should feel betrayed: “Good cops hate bad cops more than anyone, and we have to support our good cops.” She argued that during her time as chief she’d defended tougher hiring standards, as did the mayor.

Nevertheless, former City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chaired the public safety committee when the PERF report dropped, has cast doubt on how enthusiastically SDPD engaged in the PERF reforms. Emerald said she used to have regular updates with Zimmerman when she was still in office. And after asking Zimmerman about why the PERF recommendations were taking so long to implement, Zimmerman accused her of being, in Emerald’s words, “against the cops.”

Zimmerman has declined to talk about those closed-door discussions.

Brian Marvel, then president of SDPD’s officer union, was among the only voices of public criticism at the time. At the July 2017 meeting, he offered praise for the city’s commitment to change but highlighted one of PERF’s key findings — that there were a significant number of vacancies among the rank of sergeant. The vacancies were significant because it meant the cops who were temporarily picking up managerial duties hadn’t been properly trained and promoted. They didn’t have the same authority and weren’t necessarily keeping a close eye on subordinates.

Marvel made a case that elected officials needed to set aside more money for the department. “In many ways,” he said, “this can be described as one step forward, two steps back.”

The same year the PERF report was released, the City Council also hired SDSU researchers to study whether people of color were being pulled over by SDPD at a disproportionate rate. They found evidence of bias, but the final report was watered down and officials fought the release of an earlier draft that included harsher language directed at SDPD.

Reflecting on both the PERF and SDSU reports, Emerald said she hopes an independent citizens’ commission makes it to the November ballot and makes it into law.

“It’s unfortunate it has to come to a vote, but if that’s how it has to be done, that’s how it has to be done,” she said. “I imagine it’ll be a hard-fought campaign.”

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who’s long been an ally of law enforcement, will not be among the ballot measure’s opponents. He came out in support of the effort Monday at a press conference announcing SDPD’s decision to no longer use a certain choke hold to detain suspects.

Chief David Nisleit will also not be opposed. But he’s not supporting it either.

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for the department, said the chief would not interfere in the City Council’s deliberations over whether to put the initiative on the ballot and would stay out of the possible debate in November.

“He respects that process and the right of the people’s voices to be heard,” Takeuchi said.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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