The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

New documents in a lawsuit filed earlier this year allege corrections officers at the Richard J. Donovan state prison in San Diego County are “assaulting and terrorizing incarcerated people with disabilities.”

A man who filed a declaration in the lawsuit has died in the facility since the initial complaint was filed in February, according to court documents. He died as a result of more officer abuse, the filings contend.

The lawsuit contains 112 declarations of abuse from six facilities throughout the state – the majority of them being from Donovan – reports VOSD’s Maya Srikrishnan.

The court filings describe officers throwing people out of wheelchairs, punching deaf people when they cannot hear spoken orders, beating people with disabilities who request help carrying heavy packages, closing cell doors on people who use walkers and wheelchairs and attacking suicidal people when they ask for mental care.

A use of force expert for the plaintiffs reviewed 43 investigations into use of force incidents and found “the profound shortcomings of the system allow staff to assault and retaliate against people with disabilities with near-impunity, only facing discipline in the rare cases when video evidence or staff reports make it impossible for [the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to find that the misconduct did not occur.”

Since Jan. 1, 2017, inmates at Donovan have made approximately 1,100 complaints against staff, reports Srikrishnan. During that same period, authorities at the facility terminated nine officers for their involvement in misconduct incidents against people who were incarcerated. 

It’s Unclear Whether Schools Can Use Bond Money for Coronavirus Measures

Three times in the last 12 years, San Diego Unified School District has raised property taxes to fund construction. Many other local districts have as well and now, as they plea for more money to handle the logistics of schooling in the new coronavirus age, they’re trying to figure out how much of that money can be accessed. San Diego Unified has hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for the purpose of making school buildings safer for students, but it’s not clear whether that money can be used for safety measures to protect students from the coronavirus.

Whether school districts can legally use any of the bond money on hand to address COVID-19 safety concerns will hinge on the language in the bonds, school consultants and others tell VOSD’s Ashly McGlone. 

For example, bond money can’t be used for personal protective equipment, according to San Diego Unified’s spokeswoman. The money couldn’t pay for sanitizing efforts either.

But more portable classrooms to allow students to distance or wall partitions might be permissible, one expert tells McGlone.

San Diego Unified’s general fund was already tight before the pandemic and is even more precarious now.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget proposal sent schools into a panic last month, with some leaders of San Diego Unified threatening to not reopen unless they get more cash to make schools safer in a post-COVID-19 environment. A friendlier version of the budget from the Legislature that took away Newsom’s cuts – and replaced them with possible state funding deferrals – was received better. The state budget – including K-12 funding – will be finalized later this month.

San Diego Police Use Force More Often on Black Residents

KPBS reporter Claire Trageser analyzed police use of force cases in San Diego County going back to 2001 and found a familiar but alarming trend.

Police are more likely to shoot at people of color. If the suspect is white, police are more likely to use alternative methods of force, including Tasers, beanbags and dogs.

Trageser was able to report her findings because of SB 1421, a state transparency law, but her analysis is incomplete because the public is still waiting on about two-thirds of the region’s use of force files to be released. Some agencies were quick to give up what they had in 2019 while others continue to drag their feet.

KPBS, VOSD and other media outlets teamed up to force agencies to comply with the law, over the objections of some police unions.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which tried to charge for access to the files, urged KPBS not to run the story until all the records were in its possession, warning that an incomplete analysis would “exacerbate already heightened tensions in our communities.” Trageser notes that the Sheriff’s Department still has about 90 unreleased files.

Late last year, we analyzed separate records and found unequal treatments in at least two other aspects of law enforcement: 

  • Black people are stopped at higher rates, but those searches resulted in lower or roughly the same rate of property seizures compared with other races.
  • Black people (and Latinos) also disproportionately bear the brunt of marijuana enforcement, even though legalization was supposed to alleviate those disparities.

Escondido Officials, Police Warm to Black Lives Matter

At the urging of activists, Escondido leaders, police officers and community members came together in support of racial justice. VOSD’s Kayla Jimenez caught up with Police Chief Ed Varso afterward to discuss what he’s thinking and how he’s re-evaluating the use of force. 

Varso said he’s been talking to his officers about moments in which force is legally justified but unwise. “Maybe that’s not the best approach. You’d be on legal ground, but maybe walking away is the better option,” he said. 

Also in the North County Report, black students, staff and alumni at Cal State San Marcos are calling for better visibility of black voices and black history on campus. 

Ballot Measures Advance

The full San Diego City Council will be considering a slew of major ballot measures that could reshape public life and local land use. The City Council’s Rules Committee decided to allow several of them to move forward for consideration by the full Council.

Height limit in the Midway District: In 1972 voters determined that builders could not construct anything higher than 30-feet west of Interstate 5 in the city of San Diego without a vote of the people. SeaWorld managed to get a vote like that for roller coasters in 1998. Now, the full Council will consider asking voters to allow builders to redevelop the Sports Arena and Midway area without the height limit. The old arena is itself taller than 30 feet but was built before the height limit was imposed. It could not be rebuilt without a vote. Councilwoman Barbara Bry and Council President Georgette Gomez opposed advancing the measure. Gomez said she just wants to clear up some confusion.

Bry, according to the U-T, said she wants the city to coordinate better with the Navy and its nearby redevelopment effort.

Instant runoff: The Council will also consider putting on the ballot a measure that would mean November elections in the city of San Diego have four candidates voters can rank rather than choose just one.

Overturn ban on project labor agreements: The Council will also consider a measure that would overturn a ballot measure passed in 2012 that prohibited the city from requiring project labor agreements for city projects. PLAs, as they’re known, mean that unions agree to guarantee labor and not go on strike on major projects in exchange for a requirement that all workers go through union halls with associated benefits and training. The state later passed laws threatening city funding for having this kind of a prohibition in place and the measure’s proponents are using that as the main argument for overturning the ban.

Homeless Feeding Programs Get a Boost

Philanthropists have launched an unprecedented program to feed unsheltered homeless San Diegans amid a hunger crisis raging along with the coronavirus pandemic.

In April, VOSD’s Lisa Halverstadt and Kayla Jimenez wrote about the struggles homeless people have experienced accessing food as long-standing meal operations and restaurants shut down during the pandemic.

Now, with the help of an initial $500,000 donation from philanthropist Gwendolyn Sontheim and additional funds from San Diego Gas & Electric and other foundations, the Lucky Duck Foundation is teaming with homeless-serving agencies to ramp up a program to deliver food and water to homeless San Diegans across the county.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is preparing and packing the non-perishable meals at its East Mesa re-entry facility. Then homeless outreach teams from nonprofits including Home Start, Family Health Centers of San Diego and Alpha Project pick up the food and water to distribute to homeless people.

For now, the program has the capacity to serve hundreds of homeless San Diegans multiple times a week. 

In Other News

  • Here’s one way to de-escalate a tense moment. A black community leader convinced a white teen in military-looking clothing to hand over his knife. CBS 8 reports that the kid had been “acting odd” at a Black Lives Matter rally in Oceanside.
  • A Los Angeles Times columnist asked Assemblywoman Shirley Weber if her bills to overturn a ban on affirmative action and create a reparations task force were symbolic. “No, hell no!” she responded. “I am beyond consciousness-raising … I don’t do things for people to think about.”
  • The U-T noted a contrast in the region’s pandemic response on Tuesday. As beach parking lots and piers reopened, Scripps Health stopped taking new COVID-19 transfers from Imperial County — there are too many. Bars and pools can reopen with restrictions Friday. The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are slated to reopen later this month, Fox 5 reports. 
  • Five homeless San Diegans with disabilities have sued the city alleging they should have been offered hotel rooms during the pandemic given their vulnerability to the coronavirus. 
  • Fox 5 reports that President Donald Trump took to Twitter Wednesday to announce that San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System will receive nearly $220 million in federal CARES Act funds.

The Morning Report was written by Maya Srikrishnan, Lisa Halverstadt and Jesse Marx, and edited by Sara Libby.

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