From left: Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe and Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

This post has been updated.

City voters last year overwhelmingly approved Measure B, a plan to strengthen oversight of the San Diego Police Department, but seven months later, advocates and city officials are at odds over how – and how quickly – to put that plan into practice.

That dispute broke into the open Friday, when Patrick Anderson, interim commissioner of the Commission on Police Practices, sent an email to community members expressing frustration the city had blown a deadline.

Measure B, approved by nearly 75 percent of city voters, promised to replace the old Community Review Board on Police Practices with a new Commission on Police Practices that, unlike its predecessor, would have subpoena power to investigate complaints of police misconduct, officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, among other reforms.

Anderson was expecting to see an ordinance that outlined how those changes would be implemented last week, but as of Friday he still hadn’t. The City Council’s public safety committee is holding a special meeting to discuss the plan Thursday.

“We were told to expect the Measure B Ordinance draft before Memorial Day, and later told it would arrive on June 16 or 17,” Anderson wrote. “Those dates have now passed, and this morning we learned that the ordinance draft will not be released until Tuesday morning (June 22), two days before the (committee’s) special meeting. I continue to hope that ample time and space will be created for community input on the implementation ordinance,” Anderson wrote. “As soon as the draft is released, I will send a copy of it to this list.”

He canceled a Monday community roundtable meant to review the city’s plan, turning his attention to a Tuesday evening event hosted by San Diegans for Justice, the advocacy and reform group that proposed Measure B, where he hoped to be able to discuss the ordinance after its release.

Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, in a Monday interview asked Councilwoman Montgomery Steppe, the chair of the Council’s public safety committee, to delay the hearing until community members had time to review the proposal.

“It is absolutely unconscionable for the city to simply dump this ordinance on the community with literally just hours for the community to digest it, then expect the community to provide real comment on how they feel about it,” she said.

By law, the Council needs to release the plan at least 24 hours before the Thursday committee hearing. The city released it at close of business Monday.

The city attorney’s office has been writing the ordinance. Montgomery Steppe said her office has been going back and forth with city attorney staff over details and language in the draft, to make sure they get it right.

St. Julian said the city should still publish the ordinance this week as promised, then wait to hold a hearing on it until there’s been enough time to review it.

“It is unconscionable that we’re a couple days out from the meeting to discuss the ordinance and we don’t have a copy of it,” she said. “It’s an incredibly important piece of legislation, and will be an incredibly complicated piece of legislation. That the city attorney has waited so long to provide this ordinance is unconscionable, and we lay this delay at the feet of the city attorney. Let’s just be very clear: The city attorney represents the police department.”

Montgomery Steppe isn’t alarmed with the process. Montgomery Steppe has been among the city’s highest profile criminal justice reformers since she ran for office in 2018. She supported Measure B.

She said the process so far has been inclusive of the community, and has been moving as fast as could be expected.

“This took almost a decade to get this on the ballot, and we’re dedicated to the implementation of the ordinance, and it’s only been about six months since it started,” Montgomery Steppe said. “We’re doing our best to work through the system so that the ordinance will be available as soon as possible – it will come to committee, there will be a public process, and if it needs to come back to committee again, then it will.”

The city has an official outline of the process and timeline for getting the new commission up and running. After voters approved the change, the secretary of state signed off on the change to the city’s charter and commissioners of the former Community Review Board became interim leaders of the new commission. The city’s new budget, signed Monday by Mayor Todd Gloria, includes $1.14 million for the new commission, enough to cover salaries for five employees and a new director. That official timeline pegs the committee at adopting an ordinance in July, roughly in line with the current schedule.

But the details in the ordinance that turns the ballot measure into governing documents for the new commission will be critical. It will specify how commissioners can interview officers and investigate complaints – the previous board relied on the San Diego Police Department’s internal affairs review of incidents – and the way that they recommend punishment for officers who are subjects of their investigations. Perhaps most significantly, it will determine what elements of setting up the new commission are subject to meet and confer – the required process for negotiations between city leaders and the Police Officers Association, the union for SDPD officers.

Meet and confer, per the city schedule, could begin in August and run through October. But the city isn’t anticipating the full Council signing off on the commission’s ordinance until January, appointing new commissioners until April or appointing a new executive director until November of 2022.

Anderson, after holding five roundtable discussions on the new oversight body, has created a list of 10 guiding principles reflecting the desires from the 100-some community groups that attended the forums. The top issue was transparency and accountability, but it also included assuring the commission had a flexible appointment process for commissioners and staff to accommodate residents with diverse backgrounds or who had direct experience “with policing (or overpolicing).” It asked for regular reports of data related to policing in the city and to include youth seats on the board.

“We have no idea if there are substantive disputes about content,” Anderson said. “It could happen that every community recommendation is reflected in the draft, and it is equally possible that none will be reflected. But the first demand from the community was transparency and community involvement in the process, so not receiving a draft with enough turn-around time before the special meeting understandably makes community members suspicious about what’s in this draft.”

St. Julian said she won’t know if she has any specific policy disputes with the city’s ordinance until she sees it, and even then it could take some time to break down. But, she said the process is indicative of how previous reform attempts have played out with the city.

“Let’s be really clear: This is the game the city plays,” she said. “They delay, delay, delay when they want, then they put something out and say it has to be done quickly so the community can’t digest it. We are not going to stand for it. This is not the time to rush.”

Montgomery Steppe said the city’s proposal will reflect the spirit and intent of the ballot measure. If there are policy fights looming at City Council over what’s in the ordinance, she said she’s up for it.

“What I want to make sure is that as much as possible, we’re sticking to the desires of the community, doing as much as we legally can do,” she said. “All the Council members have been supportive of these efforts so far. This is when we get into the details, so we’ll see what happens.”

Update: After this post initially published, the city released the draft ordinance. 

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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