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Supporters of stronger law enforcement oversight pulled no punches at a Tuesday evening forum convened to discuss a long-awaited draft ordinance that will guide the creation of a new police review commission.
Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, which organized the forum, described the draft ordinance as containing “poison pills” with “the potential to absolutely gut” the new commission.
Two experts in police oversight who reviewed the draft ordinance at Voice of San Diego’s request also expressed concerns, and said some of the language raised red flags and that many sections needed specificity.
St. Julian wrote Measure B, the November ballot measure approved by nearly 75 percent of city voters, that sought to overhaul the city’s Community Review Board on Police Practices and replace it with a new Commission on Police Practices.
The review board’s authority was limited to reviewing Internal Affairs investigations conducted by the San Diego Police Department, suggesting policy changes and recommending discipline for officers who violate policy. Measure B promised voters a commission with the ability to conduct independent investigations, subpoena witnesses, recommend policy overhauls and ensure the police department is complying with all local, state and federal data-reporting requirements.
While no one expected Measure B’s implementation to be quick, St. Julian and others had hoped to see a draft ordinance weeks ago. Instead, the draft was released Monday afternoon, after Voice of San Diego reported on supporters’ frustration with the city missing key deadlines. The City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee is scheduled to discuss the draft Thursday morning.
The committee is chaired by Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, whose office took the lead on working with the city attorney to write the ordinance.
St. Julian said Montgomery Steppe shouldn’t be blamed for the flawed draft.
“We have not yet given Councilmember Montgomery Steppe the support she needs to be bold,” she told meeting attendees.
St. Julian said she asked the committee to delay its meeting and was told no. Multiple community members said they planned to urge the committee to postpone a vote to send the draft ordinance to the full City Council for approval.
Speakers at Tuesday’s community forum said the ordinance, as written, gives too much power to the City Council and the police department. Late last year and in January and March, community groups held a series of roundtable discussions and came up with a list of priorities for the new commission.
“Community should be involved in every stage of the commissioner selection process (including in the design of that process)” was at the top of the list, yet the draft ordinance gives the City Council sole authority to select commission members.
“This was not written with the community in the forefront of anybody’s mind. This does not benefit, this does not build trust,” said Francine Maxwell, president of the San Diego chapter of the NAACP.
St. Julian described as “outrageous” language in the draft ordinance that allows the police union and the city’s labor negotiators to include commission rules in any collective bargaining agreements. While state law requires governments to negotiate with unions over anything that could impact a public employee’s working conditions, St. Julian said the ordinance goes too far in requiring the commission to comply with “anything” in a collective bargaining agreement.
“This means that the police union and the city can get together behind closed doors and the commission has to comply with that,” she said. “They can enter into a collective bargaining agreement that totally guts the commission.”
St. Julian also expressed frustration with the way the ordinance defined the commission’s investigative authority and subpoena power.
“There are some things that may, to a layperson’s eyes, be very subtle,” she said, “but there are some things in here that have the potential to absolutely gut Measure B.”
In an interview with VOSD shortly after Measure B passed, St. Julian said she did extensive research before writing the measure to make sure it was fair to all parties.
“I did not sit down to write anything that was a gotcha [measure] in any way, shape or form,” she said. “One of the first people I talked to about this was the police chief of the city in which I grew up … the other person I talked to was my uncle, John, who was a police officer. This is totally a win-win for everybody.”
St. Julian told Voice of San Diego that she and fellow criminal justice reformers intend to unveil their own, alternative ordinance Thursday morning rectifying the flaws they see in the city’s version. She called it “the community ordinance.”
“It fulfills the promise of Measure B, and incorporates the incredibly intelligent suggestions of the community,” she said.
Barbara Attard, a police accountability consultant, said the ordinance fails to clearly define the commission’s authority and also could give the police chief a reason to deny commissioners access to important records.
“The Chief of Police retains authority over the records of the Police Department and may withhold any record from the Commission when, in the opinion of the Chief of Police, the disclosure will hinder a criminal investigation or will infringe upon the exercise of the Chief of Police’s right to deliberative process and confidential communications with other law enforcement agencies, the Mayor, or with the subordinate employees of the Police Department regarding matters within the authority of the Chief of Police,” the ordinance says.
“Depending on the police chief, this section can be abused,” Attard said via email.
Nick Mitchell, who served as Denver’s independent police monitor and is currently overseeing court-ordered reforms to Los Angeles jails, said the ordinance needs to spell out whether the police chief is obligated to respond to commission recommendations. Mitchell said he also had a problem with the collective bargaining language.
“The powers, responsibilities and prerogatives of the commission, which is supposed to be independent, should be exempted from the bargaining process, not explicitly included,” he said.
Jack Schaffer, a San Diego police detective and president of the city’s police union, said Tuesday that he hadn’t had a chance to review the draft ordinance. He said the union was not involved in writing the ordinance — something community members alleged at the Tuesday evening meeting.
City Attorney spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik also said the union had no role in writing the new law and that the Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee could change the ordinance’s language to address community concerns.
“Our office has worked closely with Councilmember Montgomery Steppe to create a framework that satisfies state law and voter intent for preliminary discussion at the committee level. As the authors of [Measure] B have stated, the legislation is complex.”