San Diego Voters Will Consider New Police Accountability Board

A San Diego police vehicle. (AndyHe829 via Wikipedia)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — San Diego voters will decide in November whether to approve a new police accountability commission with the authority to independently investigate alleged misconduct and subpoena witnesses, after the City Council Tuesday approved the addition of the proposed charter amendment to the November ballot. 

The proposed Commission on Police Practices would have more teeth than the current iteration — the Community Review Board on Police Practices — by granting members independent investigatory power on in-custody deaths and police shootings.

In addition to subpoena powers, the commission — made up of City Council-appointed residents — would have independent legal counsel and city staff outside the police department and mayor’s office.

While the council’s vote Tuesday coincided with the national debate on police use of force on black Americans and people of color, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, San Diego’s ballot measure has been years in the making.

Sparked by the arrest of Occupy Wallstreet protester Stephanie Jennings outside City Hall in downtown San Diego, whose complaint about the handling of her arrest was never investigated, several community organizations have been pushing for years for the City Council to revamp its police oversight.

Women Occupy San Diego, an advocacy organization formed after months-long protests in 2011, partnered with the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, an African American legal association, to bring forward the proposed charter amendment in June 2019.

Tuesday’s vote also follows a study last year that found black residents were stopped at a 219% higher rate than white residents by the San Diego Police Department.

After making its way through several City Council committees last year and labor negotiations between the city and several employee unions, including the San Diego Police Officers Association, the City Council heard public comment from 117 speakers — in addition to dozens of written comments in favor of the measure — Tuesday before voting unanimously to include the measure on the November ballot.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who helped shepherd the ballot measure through the necessary City Council approval process, said “it is time to shift the power to the hands of the community.”

“I believe this is a step in that direction,” Montgomery said.

City Council President Georgette Gómez said “it took a lot of time, but it shouldn’t have” to get the ballot measure approved.

“These issues are coming from real incidents and real complaints in our communities. Just because we don’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening,” Gomez said.

“This is a moment of community victory. People might feel government is not listening — we are. We are doing the work to ensure we are uplifting our communities,” Gomez added.

Andrea St. Julian, president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association and principal author of the charter amendment, told council members Tuesday she worked alongside many San Diego police reform advocates for years to get the measure on the ballot.

“The success of this charter amendment is squarely based on the support of the community,” St. Julian said.

St. Julian told Courthouse News that Jennings was part of a group of 17 people arrested and held on a bus for eight hours without food or water during the Occupy Wallstreet protests in San Diego.

While her lawsuit for mistreatment by the San Diego Police Department resulted in a settlement, her complaint was never investigated by the current Community Review Board on Police Practices because it was not forwarded to the board for investigation by the SDPD.

Jennings’ experience and that of other people arrested during the Occupy Wallstreet protest prompted police reform advocates to push for the creation of a police oversight commission with more independence, St. Julian said.

“It’s pretty verifiable it has little to do with the events of the last six weeks, we have been making it through City Council for one and a half years, the meet-and-confer which led to the final ballot measure was two days before George Floyd’s death,” St. Julian said, noting the recent protests and calls for police reform. 

“The community has been in favor of this kind of reform for decades, going back to 1988. The community has always wanted it and it is not about recent events,” she added.

San Diego Police Officers Association President Jack Schaeffer said in a phone interview the union has taken a neutral position on the ballot measure. 

“We’re going to work with whatever they give us,” he said.

While he thinks the Community Review Board on Police Practices has been “successful” compared to other police oversight agencies across the country, Schaeffer said he hopes if the new oversight board is approved by voters in November, it can also be effective.

“There’s a lot of ways to do oversight, we want the voters to be able to pick what type they get,” Schaeffer said.

“Regardless of the way it’s done, I hope it’s done well. It would be a shame to have something out there that doesn’t work as well as what we already had,” he added.

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