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Hundreds of protesters march through downtown San Diego to demand justice for George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.⁣⁣ / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For hours upon hours this Monday, members of the public called in to a marathon City Council hearing to urge their representatives to defund the Police Department.

They didn’t get their wish.

It was exhilarating to see so many people suddenly engaged with city government, and oversight of the Police Department in particular. But the city budget is far from the only chance the City Council has to exercise influence over the Police Department.

And yet in plenty of other instances too, the result was much like it was on Monday. That is, nothing happened.

Read the below snippets from some great accountability stories VOSD’s Jesse Marx has written over the last several years, and see if you can maybe, possibly, detect a little theme here:

From a piece following up on an investigation that revealed former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman used wildly misleading statistics when she urged the City Council not to allow more pot businesses to open:

A month after it was revealed that the San Diego Police Department presented misleading statistics about crime tied to marijuana businesses to the City Council, members of the Council’s public safety committee didn’t ask a single question on the issue.

From a piece that broke the news that police were accessing footage from the city’s smart streetlights system:

City Councilmen Scott Sherman and Chris Cate, who both voted in favor of the retrofitted streetlights in 2016, said they were unaware that police had been accessing the cameras until Voice of San Diego contacted them. And while they said they thought the footage could be a useful law enforcement tool with the right amount of oversight, they were disappointed that they didn’t know about the surveillance capabilities of the project from the beginning.

Sherman blamed a culture at City Hall at that time of dropping major proposals last-minute and then pressuring the decision-makers to take them or leave them. Indeed, when the streetlight project went to officials, staff recommended “immediate action.” Hearings at the committee and Council levels lasted only a few minutes.

From a piece detailing how SDPD responded to a report urging it to adopt dozens of reforms:

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.

From a piece showing that a longtime city narrative justifying giving SDPD more money was not true:

The 153-page auditor’s report looked across the city’s workforce and its findings on SDPD didn’t attract much attention in May. No one on the Audit Committee asked about police pay or retention. Instead, officials talked about the need to gather more data citywide on why some people are leaving. One official noted that the Human Resources Department got a new director in 2018.

You get the idea.

I brought some of these instances up to Council President Georgette Gómez when she appeared on the podcast this week.

She seemed to suggest that aggressive oversight of the Police Department falls squarely on the mayor: “There’s only so much, and we’re trying to figure out ‘How do we legislate PD?’ But at the end of the day, it’s how that legislation gets implemented. And the Council doesn’t have a role in implementation. It is the mayor. We can express our opinions on the implementation side of things. We can express our disagreement and push on other ways, but at the end of the day, that the follow-up and how that gets implemented is under the mayor’s jurisdiction. And we have very little role within all of that.”

Certainly, the mayor should be aggressively monitoring the police. (One San Diego mayor, in fact, just admitted he did not do that.)

But if the Council has no role to play, why even have the meetings?

As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez – who has endorsed Gómez’s bid for Congress – and many of her newcomer colleagues have shown, aggressive questioning of public officials and business leaders in a public forum can be an extraordinarily useful tool in its own right.

If members of Congress can get arcane issues like banking regulations to go viral, then certainly elected officials hearing about police policy – sexiest and most volatile issue in the news over the last few years – can bother to at least ask a few questions.

What VOSD Learned This Week

Relentless police harassment has been a constant fact of life for residents of San Diego’s City Council District 4. Though they’ve been making those complaints for years, they’re finally falling on receptive ears. Council President Georgette Gómez told us she tried to cut SDPD’s budget but came up short. Jesse Marx revealed that a city auditor’s report threw cold water on the city’s narrative about police retention problems – a narrative they used to justify giving the department more money.

Several police agencies have been using drones to monitor recent protests, including Escondido. VOSD’s Kayla Jimenez interviewed Escondido’s police chief about recent protests and prospective reforms.

Finally, explosive claims filed in an ongoing lawsuit detail a different kind of law enforcement abuse: Inmates at the Richard J. Donovan state prison in San Diego County say disabled prisoners routinely experience horrific abuse.

***

The Cajon Valley Union School District is the first local district to officially release a reopening plan – and the process behind it highlights how intense parents’ anxieties over school are right now. Speaking of parental anxieties, this video captures the trials of distance learning.

Meanwhile, as other schools grapple with reopening, it’s not clear whether districts that have school bond money on the table can use those funds for coronavirus needs like rearranging and sanitizing classrooms.

***

Remember SANDAG’s 5 Big Moves? We were supposed to get crucial details on what the plan to remake our regional transportation system would look like, but that rollout is stuck in neutral because of the coronavirus. That plan is meant to help to region reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. On that front, advocates are also hoping to stop new shipbuilding projects along the bay that might exacerbate pollution in areas that already have too much of it.

***

The city attorney’s office says SDG&E is overcharging the city by millions to bury power lines underground. City Attorney Mara Elliott also did a live interview with us this week, where she said police reforms “are absolutely necessary.”

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The future of the county’s program housing homeless and other vulnerable San Diegans in hotels amid the pandemic is uncertain now that hotels are beginning to reopen to tourists.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Although many are becoming comfortable spurting out phrases like ‘systemic racism,’ the solutions proposed remain mired in the system that is being critiqued. The result is that the roots of oppression and inequality that constitute what many activists refer to as ‘racial capitalism’ are left in place.” — America has been debating how to stop police brutality since at least the 1910s. So why do we keep offering up the same solutions?

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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