police oversight board san diego
police oversight board san diego

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If you want to be a member of Boulder, Colorado’s police oversight panel, having a criminal record is a plus. 

The panel was created expressly “to ensure that historically excluded communities have a voice in police oversight,” according to its website, which says that preference will be given to people of color, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, members of the LGBTQ community — and people with a history of incarceration.

The language stands in contrast to the rules for the city of San Diego’s new Commission on Police Practices, which disqualifies anyone with a felony record from being appointed a commissioner unless the person gets an expungement or is five years out from completing probation or parole.

“An applicant or nominee will be disqualified, without consideration, if their criminal history includes any conviction, regardless of the date of the conviction, for any felony crime,” the ordinance reads. 

The felony ban was added to the commission’s implementation ordinance last month to the surprise of community groups who’ve spent the last year providing input about how the commission should operate. After significant public pushback, the language was amended on Jan. 20 — hours before a City Council committee was scheduled to discuss the ordinance. The amendment added the five-year provision and described it as “a minimum period of rehabilitation in the community.” People can also obtain a certificate of rehabilitation — a lengthy process that usually requires a court hearing — or a court order showing a conviction was “overturned, expunged, or dismissed.”

Andrea St. Julian, co-founder of the group San Diegans for Justice who’s been closely involved in the commission’s creation, said the felony ban “seemed to come out of nowhere” — no one had asked for it publicly — and was counter to what the community wanted. 

“The community had been so vocal over the past 15 months about how important it was to not have a per se ban for anyone who’s ever been convicted of a felony,” she said.

Henry Foster, chief of staff for City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery-Steppe, whose office has been supervising the drafting of the ordinance, told Voice of San Diego that the felony exclusion was added because it’s “typically standard hiring language.”  

But commissioners will be volunteers, not city employees. And the city’s personnel director, Richard Snapper, said through a spokeswoman that the city doesn’t have a de facto ban on hiring people with a criminal record. Employment depends “on the type of job applied for and the nature and recency of the conviction,” he said.

The commission’s make-up has been a subject of debate for more than a year, following the passage of Measure B, the November 2020 ballot initiative that sought to replace the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices with the Commission on Police Practices. Unlike the board, which reviewed San Diego Police Department internal affairs investigations, the commission will have a professional staff with the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct and in-custody deaths and recommend policy overhauls, among other things. Staff will present findings and policy proposals to commissioners for approval.

Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said many oversight panels are moving away from excluding members who have a criminal record.

“While there are many boards/commissions that still ban members with criminal convictions, the trend is to encourage those with lived experience in the justice system to apply for positions,” she said.

Voice of San Diego reviewed rules for 30 police oversight boards across the country. Only five explicitly ban anyone with a felony conviction. In Knoxville, Tennessee, the Police Advisory & Review Committee ties eligibility to voting rights. In Tennessee, anyone convicted of a felony must go through an official process to have their right to vote restored.   

On the flip side, many boards, like Boulder’s, spell out the importance of having a diverse commission. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission welcomes “people who have had significant experience with the police, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system.”

San Diego Police Capt. Jeff Jordon said he believes a felony conviction should disqualify a person from serving on the commission. Allowing such a person on the commission “will diminish the trust, confidence and legitimacy of the CPP,” he said, emphasizing that he was sharing his own views and wasn’t speaking on the department’s behalf. 

“Officers will perceive the inclusion of a person with a felony conviction on the board as unfair and contributing to a biased process,” Jordon said. “Officers are clearly against it, much in the same way that advocates for the ordinance have argued the inclusion of law enforcement or their family members will jeopardize the board’s independence and also introduce bias into their decision making.”

As it’s currently written, the commission’s implementation ordinance forbids “current or former employee[s] of the Police Department” or employees of other county law enforcement agencies from serving on the commission. The ban extends to immediate family and household members. 

Patrick Anderson, who’s currently serving as an interim member of the city’s new commission while its operating rules are being finalized, said the ban on law enforcement is not the same as the felony ban.

“Police officers already have an opportunity to evaluate complaints, officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths,” he said. “This is called an internal affairs investigation. The purpose of an independent commission is to authorize a non-law enforcement body to have an equal opportunity to evaluate police conduct.”

Anderson added that having a criminal record doesn’t mean a person can’t be impartial.   

“There simply is no other venue in which people with these experiences have an opportunity to evaluate police conduct,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they have that opportunity, just like every other member of the community?”

At a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee late last month, Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert tried to make a motion to strike the felony exclusion from the ordinance. 

“I personally think that nobody should be barred because of their criminal history,” she said.

Montgomery-Steppe, the committee’s chair, said the ordinance needed to include clear language about who was eligible to apply, but added that she was willing to explore amending the language when the draft ordinance goes to the full City Council for a vote this spring.

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