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

Efforts to reform police budgets and practices have fizzled up and down the state in the wake of racial justice protests this summer – but San Diego voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a measure to create a much stronger oversight body for the San Diego Police Department.

Measure B replaces the existing police oversight board, called the Community Review Board on Police Practices, with one that has the power to conduct independent investigations and subpoena witnesses, and its own legal counsel. The new entity will be called the Commission on Police Practices. The measure had a whopping 75 percent support from voters as of Wednesday’s count.

After the San Diego City Council declined to decrease the police budget amid demands for change earlier this year, and the state Legislature failed to pass several measures, including one that would decertify officers who commit serious misconduct, reform proponents in San Diego looked to Measure B as an effort they believed could actually cross the finish line. After multiple attempts to enact similar reforms didn’t even make the ballot, this time around, the measure won the support of Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Proponents said the board as structured couldn’t provide meaningful oversight.

In the case of a 2015 officer-involved shooting, for example, the review board had to weigh the case without having access to key documents and interviews.

The board in that case sought to review materials in the possession of the district attorney’s office, but the DA’s office declined to provide them. And because SDPD officials denied their own internal affairs investigators’ request to interview the officer involved in the shooting, the review board didn’t have access to such an interview. It didn’t exist.

If the new commission existed at the time it reviewed that shooting, it would have had the power to subpoena those documents and witnesses itself.

I spoke with Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice and the author of Measure B, about its passage and how implementation of the measure will work.

Were you surprised by the margin?

I was ecstatic about the margin. I was really happy. You know, the thing is that when you’re so close to something, you never know if you’re being realistic about it. I have to say that in talking with people in the community and talking with voters about Measure B, I really did see very similar types of support. So I can say that the results are very much in line with what we saw throughout our campaign, and what we saw when we were talking to voters.

What do you need from the mayor and the Council need to do to ensure this reform is wielded in the way you envisioned?

I think we’re fortunate in that both mayoral candidates have let us know that they’re very supportive of Measure B. Barbara Bry was extremely supportive when she was on the City Council. Last night, Todd Gloria specifically stated that he looked forward to working with me to make sure that the commission functioned very well. So I think we have a really great support, or we will have great support from the mayor’s office on that. We have not yet spoken to all of the new City Council members, but I have spoken to them just generally on other things over the last few years. And I think that most of the new City Council members will be supportive. So I am not anticipating great difficulties in making sure that this commission works, and that it works well.

So that is important to start out. Now that being said, it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be challenging, because any legislation is challenging, right? Because City Council members are dealing with different parts of the community and every part of the community wants to make sure that it’s heard. And that’s important that that takes place. So, so we certainly understand that there is going to be a lot of effort involved in terms of making sure that any ordinances supporting the new commission really reflect what the community wants and needs. And I would say that’s one of the things that San Diegans for Justice has really done best, and that is making that Measure B reflected the wants and needs and desires of the community.

You mentioned San Diegans for Justice. Do you see that coalition staying together and working on other reforms?

San Diegans for Justice is gonna stick around – definitely. One thing that we saw throughout this process was that really grassroots individuals didn’t feel that they had a voice until we came along and helped them understand: You have not only do you have a voice, we need you to speak, we need you to let our local government know what you want and what you need. And in the beginning it took a little time for people to really understand that and believe that. You know, so many times people have been led astray or disappointed. And we found that once people started to understand that, yeah, you can really affect change, people were so on board from every part of the city. I mean, really our coalition of organizations that have supported San Diegans for Justice really is from every single part of this city.

Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, speaks at press conference calling into question Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support of a police oversight ballot measure. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, speaks at press conference calling into question Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support of a police oversight ballot measure. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

And we felt that we really couldn’t just stop with Measure B. People now feel they have an avenue to make sure that their local government works as it should. And we feel a responsibility to keep San Diegans for Justice going so that people can really voice their wants and needs.

Obviously, the review board handles things on the back end – investigating an incident once something has already happened. Is there anything you’d like to see SDPD implement more on the front end to ensure fewer cases even make it to the review board?

Did you know that this is the question I most wanted to get?

This is the thing: When people read the Charter amendment, or look at the Charter amendment or think about the Charter amendment and Measure B, they think of the complaint process, and that is important. It’s really important for community members to know that there are there, there are avenues for independent investigations. But they don’t read the rest of the Charter amendment or think about it, because Measure B and the new commission also has monitoring and auditing functions and even duties. And that is just as important, maybe if not more so than the investigation duties and functions. With the ability to audit and monitor, the new commission is going to have the ability to make recommendations to the San Diego Police Department about what their practices should and should not be.

And supporting that ability is the commission’s ability to hire policy analysts who can advise them on what the best practices are. For example, say that there is a recurring concern among community members about a particular practice of the police department, community members, um, communicate this to the new commission. The commission can then say, OK, gosh, there’s a problem here. You know, we keep getting complaints about XYZ. Let’s go and talk to some policy analysts about: What are the best practices to address these complaints? What policies and processes can be police department put in place that are going to address these concerns of the community? And that’s going to, again, build that relationship. You know, that is a fantastic ability for the new commission, and one that I hope is exercised frequently and fully.

One last question I’ve gotta ask. Are you hoping to run the new commission?

Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I will not be on the commission at all. I would not. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

I will, of course be supportive of the new commission, and I will be supportive of the new ordinance. But no, I will have absolutely no official connections or duties with the commission. I believe so strongly in the ability of San Diego residents and the new commissioners – that they will be able to forge ahead. I just want to make sure that they have the tools to do what they need to do to make sure that things are working well and running smoothly and that there is a growing and building trust between the community and the police department.

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

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