San Diego County supervisors eye stronger oversight, mandatory reporting and other law enforcement reforms

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors met in chambers in January file photo.
Black Lives Matter supporters held rally at San Diego Sheriff’s Dept. Santee Station on June 7, 2020.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Four board members suggested ways to address racism and change some of law enforcement’s role in the community


Last year a divided San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted at an emotional board meeting to oppose a state bill that ultimately passed and raised the legal standards for police use of deadly force.

Now, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and weeks of protest in San Diego and nationwide — most San Diego County supervisors agreed this week that law enforcement needs to be reformed immediately and over the long-term.

Four of San Diego’s five county supervisors spoke with a Union-Tribune reporter about specific law enforcement reform ideas they are considering.

They talked about giving more power to the county’s independent commission that oversees law enforcement misconduct cases, changing law enforcement’s role when interacting with people who are homeless or mentally ill, and creating a “duty to intervene” requirement that would mandate officers and deputies to report and intervene if they witness wrongdoing by a colleague.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said Thursday, June 11, that racism is a systemic problem, and elected leaders have a responsibility to sit down with law enforcement and community members to come up with legislative solutions.

“I do know, in the end, it is all about changing human behavior and the deep-seated prejudices that exist in certain individuals in our community and in law enforcement,” she said. “It is not going to be easy ... but we have to try.”

Among the five supervisors, Jim Desmond was the only one who declined to be interviewed. He provided a statement that talked about mental health in jails but did not discuss law enforcement reform ideas.

Several county supervisors raised the possibility of increasing law enforcement’s accountability by re-examining the structure and powers of the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board, also known as CLERB.

CLERB was established by a voter initiative in 1990 following a series of abuse allegations inside county jails. The volunteer group was tasked with providing independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Department.

The effectiveness of CLERB has often been questioned and criticized by some in the community. It has struggled with backlogs of cases in part because it has a handful of staffers and a relatively small budget of $1 million. By comparison the Sheriff’s Department budget for the current fiscal year was approved at $967.1 million.

In 2017, the board opted to summarily dismiss dozens of death investigations.

Members of the County of San Diego Citizen's Law Enforcement Review Board in June 2019.
Members of the County of San Diego Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board, including Gary Brown, front, Gary Wilson, right, and Lourdes Silva, center, listen as John Fattahi, an attorney representing the family of Kristopher Birtcher, who died while in custody in October 2017, speaks during a board meeting in June 2019.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Greg Cox, chairman of the board of supervisors, said supervisors should consider providing CLERB more resources and investigative services and maybe restructure the organization.

“I’m certainly willing to consider creating more independence and greater authority for CLERB,” Cox said Thursday, June 11. “It is something we need to take a look at and it may take some additional funding.… We ought to at least be having that discussion as we are putting the budget together this year.”

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he has heard ideas from community advocates that could promote greater transparency and oversight for the group.

Jacob and Supervisor Kristin Gaspar both said it is worth taking a look at CLERB to see how it could improve.

Although supervisors cannot dictate the policies Sheriff Bill Gore institutes in his department, given he is an elected official, they can offer input on policies and are responsible for approving the department’s budget.

One policy area several supervisors pointed to was mandating that law enforcement personnel report any wrongdoing and abuse by their colleagues that they witness. The supervisors also discussed protecting officers from retaliation if they report wrongdoing.

“If one of the officers sees another officer out of line, then that officer should have the responsibility of reporting that and not have to worry about facing any kind of retaliation,” Jacob said. “If you see something, say something.”

Jacob compared it to her time as a teacher. She said sometimes you may have had a colleague who wasn’t necessarily a bad person, but a terrible teacher. Unfortunately the way the system worked administratively was that the bad teacher tended to just move around from school to school, she added.

She said she’s not sure all law enforcement departments in the region have the best internal systems for addressing and reporting people who are bad officers or deputies.

Cox and Fletcher echoed a similar point of view, saying the reporting policy needs to be accompanied by a cultural change in many departments.

Cox said the county needs to do a better job of recruiting and training law enforcement officers. He suggested departments examine hiring practices and work to have personnel reflective of the communities they serve.

Fletcher added that efforts to change the culture can build trust with the community and applauded some of the law enforcement leaders across the country who have shown solidarity with protesters.

He said some community advocates want the county to require implicit bias training for all county workers.

They also support creating an Office of Equity and Inclusion, similar to what San Diego City Council approved, Fletcher said. That office, if it were modeled to San Diego’s design, would be able to work across departments to address systemic racism — be it in economic development, land use and planning, or the Sheriff’s Department.

“I think it starts with the recognition that the challenge in front of us is not just about the murder of Mr. Floyd, it is about hundreds of years of systemic racism that is baked into our country since the original sin of slavery in our founding,” Fletcher said. “So there are changes that obviously need to come in criminal justice areas, but also in economic justice, environmental justice and addressing the inequities that are present in every level of our society.”

Members of a San Diego County Sheriff Homeless Outreach Team
L-r, San Diego County Sheriff Homeless Outreach Team deputies Aaron Bert, left, and Matt Faddis, right, stood by after they called an ambulance to check out a man living in the Lamont Park in Spring Valley who wasn’t feeling well on December 11, 2019.
(John Gibbins/Union-Tribune)

All four county supervisors discussed community policing.

They also discussed reexamining the role the Sheriff’s Department plays in behavioral health services and interacting with people who are homeless. They noted deputies often end up as the first responders to situations that may be better handled by social workers, mental health counselors or other social service providers.

Gaspar said law enforcement ended up in that situation out of necessity, but it’s clearly not something they were trained to do. She said it may be more appropriate to have someone else responding to many calls, maybe someone under the Health and Human Services Agency.

Fletcher said the county needs to create mobile crisis units. Jacob suggested having something similar to the county’s Alzheimer’s response teams; it could be an expansion or offshoot of the county Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams, also known as PERT.

All of the supervisors also emphasized the importance of making sure community voices are heard about any potential reforms, especially members of the black community.

All of five members of the Board of Supervisors are White, and the four supervisors who spoke with the Union-Tribune said their lived experience is different than many in the community.

“I have heard many stories from community members who have shared with me that racism does exist and they have active examples of where it exists in our community,” Gaspar said. “That tells me that we absolutely have work to do, and we have to be committed to doing it. There is no more discounting someone else’s experience.”

--Charles T. Clark is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune