MTS officers carry out a special enforcement unit at the La Mesa trolley station. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The wider police reform movement is catching up to the Metropolitan Transit System.

Last week, the agency responsible in San Diego for the buses and trolleys decided to pull back on a program to catch more people who ride without paying. Officials within the agency, in the meantime, are also reviewing their use of force policies and increasing the training for security force. 

It marks a significant shift in the agency’s thinking and approach, Lisa Halverstadt and Jesse Marx report in a new story.

When the MTS board agreed in 2017 to boost the number of code compliance officers who can write tickets, it did so without asking a single question in public about what that increased enforcement could mean for riders. Last year alone, MTS officers wrote 66,155 tickets.

In a single week in June, there were nearly 1,500 fare evasion citations, about 86 percent of which were still unpaid and unresolved one year later, according to a VOSD review of records. Virtually all of those were referred to debt collectors.

That punitive style of policing is what’s under scrutiny now, as the agency makes changes internally and a new group of leaders take the wheel. 

Lilac Hills Is Dead

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to deny the proposed Lilac Hills Ranch master-planned community near Valley Center, citing wildfire safety concerns.

The vote was 4-1, with only Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents the part of the county where the project would be located, voting against the staff recommendation to deny the project.

The project has been in the works for roughly 15 years, and even went before a countywide vote in 2016, where it was rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters.

Fire safety concerns have long been an issue with the project. But a series of catastrophic wildfires put the issue front and center as the proposal went back before the Board of Supervisors. One issue — obtaining easements to manage flammable vegetation and ensure safe evacuation routes — led to county planners to recommend that supervisors should deny the project.

“I have not seen for a long time, if ever, staff recommending denial of a project,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “Staff is not inclined to do that. They find every which way to approve a project.”

Jacob said it was clear that Lilac Hills Ranch was simply not a good project.

“I think it’s time the board sent a message that any project that blows up our General Plan and puts property and life in peril is not acceptable,” she said. 

Sweetwater Superintendent on Leave in Wake of Investigation

In the wake of a damning investigation that suggested potential criminal fraud, Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Karen Janney was placed on administrative leave Wednesday.

A long-awaited audit from a fiscal watchdog agency came out two days earlier and accused Janney and three other school district workers of deliberately covering up budget problems within the district. Sweetwater’s board met in a closed session Wednesday and made the decision to put her on leave.

Board president Frank Tarantino was the only board member who voted against putting Janney on leave. He stepped down as board president, but did not resign from the board.

The district’s fiscal woes started back in September 2018, when it suddenly became apparent the district had overspent by $30 million. Later reporting by Voice of San Diego showed that the source of the overspending had been across-the-board raises that some within the district knew were unaffordable. Two individuals named in the recent audit were shown to have helped cover up the overspending, Voice of San Diego revealed.

On Wednesday, Sweetwater’s board also voted to lay off 209 workers, including teachers, counselors and librarians.  

The district has been forced to cut tens of millions from its budget since the massive overspending was first revealed. The district has already lost hundreds of teachers who took an early retirement last year that was designed to help save money. 

In order to stay afloat the district will need to make even bigger cuts in the following years. Earlier in the week, board members voted to make up to $43 million in cuts next, $84 million the year after that and $139 million the year after that. 

One public commenter noted that none of the people being laid off was responsible for covering up the district’s finances or potential criminal fraud.  

A Veteran Activist on Sustaining the Police Reform Movement

Yusef Miller, a member of the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego, has been a major presence in the North County activist scene for years.

In 2019, he spoke on behalf of a mosque that someone (allegedly the Poway shooter) tried to burn down. Months later, he told a gathering of community advocates and law enforcement personnel in San Marcos that they needed a “reality check” if they thought racial discrimination was a thing of the past. A couple weeks ago, he turned up as a speaker at a Black Lives Matter protest in Escondido, his hometown.

For the North County Report, Kayla Jimenez caught up with Miller. The veteran activist offered his thoughts on where the police reform agenda goes next. He stressed that younger people need to learn how local government works or there won’t be substantive change.

“Screaming, marching and signs are not the whole pie,” he said. 

More Police Reforms Announced

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and SDPD Chief David Nisleit announced a new de-escalation policy that will require officers to use techniques with lower levels of force. They also announced a second policy that will require officers to intervene and report incidents to a supervisor if they see another officer use unreasonable force.

The de-escalation procedures include creating distance and a buffer zone between officers and the person they are interacting with, establishing an effective line of communication with the person and requiring officers to consider other resources, including psychiatric emergency response team clinicians. 

In Other News

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

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