The San Diego City Council took a big step Monday to creating a new commission to oversee allegations of police misconduct, but the biggest champions of the city effort aren’t satisfied.
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Supporters of stronger police oversight were left disappointed Monday after the San Diego City Council failed to make significant changes to the ordinance guiding the creation of the city’s new Commission on Police Practices.
The ordinance is close to becoming law – it needs approval from the city’s police union and one more City Council vote – but the community groups who championed the 2020 ballot measure that cleared the way for a new commission with more robust oversight authority say its language is too broad and leaves open the chance that the police union could undermine how the commission functions.
Two decades ago, the police union sued the city’s first police review board after it released a report on a controversial shooting, barring it from releasing subsequent reports. The union’s attorney at the time described the board as having been made “irrelevant” by the lawsuit.
Andrea St. Julian, an attorney and co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, described Monday’s City Council meeting as “Orwellian.” St. Julian authored Measure B, the successful November 2020 ballot measure that laid the groundwork for the commission.
“The community came out and asked for a number of amendments,” St. Julian said. “With the exception of one very small amendment, not a single amendment was taken up or even discussed.”
In a Feb. 26 letter to the City Council, St. Julian and her San Diegans for Justice co-chair Maresa Talbert laid out several changes community groups wanted to the ordinance. Nearly all changes related to tightening language the groups felt was too open to interpretation.
“The ordinance should be detailed and unambiguous,” said Brandon Hilpert, chair of the interim Commission on Police Practices, who spoke at Monday’s meeting.
The latest draft, for example, gives the commission’s investigatory staff the ability to respond to scenes of police shootings and in-custody deaths – something advocates wanted – but nothing in the ordinance requires the police department to grant the investigators access to a scene.
And, as it currently stands, the ordinance gives the police chief the ability to withhold key department records if, in his opinion, the documents meet certain criteria.
The letter from San Diegans for Justice recommends the ordinance remove the word “opinion” and require that any decision by the chief to withhold documents be “based on a reasonably objective standard.”
The police department has withheld documents from the city’s oversight board in the past without justification.
“Every single case is a fight over documents,” St. Julian said.
Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, though, touted the unanimous vote in favor of the draft ordinance. He praised Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe for leading the council’s work on it.
“Accountability is a cornerstone of a just society,” he wrote in a statement. “That accountability must apply to everyone – especially the most powerful. The establishment of the Commission on Police Practices creates a system of transparent oversight that brings us one step closer to making ‘justice for all’ a reality.”
Though the community groups were disappointed by Monday’s vote, their advocacy for stronger oversight has notched some wins. Last June, they successfully asked the city to bring in outside legal counsel to draft the ordinance and were recently able to quash a ban that barred anyone with a felony conviction from serving on the commission. The latest draft allows anyone who’s successfully completed probation or parole to serve on the commission and prioritizes “the appointment of individuals who have had prior contact or interactions with law enforcement.”
The draft will now go through a process known as meet-and-confer, during which the city’s labor negotiators and police union representatives will discuss aspects of the ordinance that impact employment conditions. It will then return to the full City Council for a vote on any changes.
This story has been updated to reflect the number of changes community groups wanted in the ordinance.