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Why Are SDPD Misconduct Complaints Increasing?

The media spotlight has been focused on the San Diego Police Department in recent weeks due to a dozen reports of officer misconduct since October. We speak to KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr about the number of officer misconduct complaints SDPD receives each year. And, we speak to the department's first chief psychologist about what SDPD can do to reduce officer misconduct.

The media spotlight has been focused on the San Diego Police Department in recent weeks due to a dozen reports of officer misconduct since October. We speak to KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr about the number of officer misconduct complaints SDPD receives each year. And, we speak to the department's first chief psychologist about what SDPD can do to reduce officer misconduct.


Katie Orr, KPBS metro reporter

Dr. Michael Mantell, local psychologist who served as the San Diego Police Department's first Chief Psychologist from 1980 to 1990

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego police release the numbers on citizen complaints. And local artists test the tension of the political equator. This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's Thursday, June second, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. This hour, we'll talk about how the concept of cities and borders is being reimagined in art projects here in San Diego. And learn why the Coachella music festival is cloning itself. But we begin looking at the numbers of citizen complaints against members of the San Diego police department. KPBS and the Union Tribune requested the department release their records of citizen complaints after multiple reports of police misconduct surfaced this year. The records show the number of citizen complaints has risen in recent years, but SDPD says there's a good reason for that. KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr joins me. Hi Katie.

ORR: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So let's 50 talk about the numbers. How many police misconduct cases were recorded by the department last year?

ORR: Last year, the SDPD received two thousand four hundred 27 police misconduct complaints from citizens. That number does not include cases started within the SDPD internally.

CAVANAUGH: Now, not all of these are classified as serious complaints.

ORR: No, that's right. Last year there were 71 cases classified as being more serious. And those include cases of excessive force, arrest, on duty criminal conduct, discrimination, using racial slurs. Those are the kinds of complaints that would fall into the more serious category.

CAVANAUGH: So what are the others?

ORR: Well, the others comprise a -- the less serious category, and those are along the lines of police officers not being courteous to people, maybe not following procedure more closely. Far less serious charges than some of the incidents we've seen lately having to do with sexual assault and things of that nature.

CAVANAUGH: The total number that you've talked about, well over two thousand complaints, there were less than 18 hundred misconduct complaints filed in 2006. What does the department say about why the over all number of complaints has increased?

ORR: That's right. In 2006 and 2007, the numbers stayed relatively flat, just under 1,800. In the middle of 2008, the Police Department charged the way it records complaints. That's when it began separating them into two categories based on how serious the complaints were, as I said, excessive force, criminal behavior versus less serious issues, procedural violations, not being courteous. After that, the total number of complaints jumped up. We saw more than 23 hundred in 2009, and more than 24 hundred in 2010. The explanation I got from the SDPD was that the more -- they had more less serious complaints. For instance, before 2008, if you called and had a minor complaint about an officer, they might not formally record it. Now they co. That is why they say those numbers have gone up. The number of serious complaints was 70 in 2009, and stop in 2010. So far in 2011, there have been 35 serious complaints so it's on track. They don't explain why. After the 2008 change, 2009 and 2010 the complaints still have risen. And they don't have an explanation for that.

CAVANAUGH: Who in the police department investigates misconduct complaints?

ORR: After -- it should be said that the majority of misconduct complaints get resolved in the field. The supervisor will go out and work with the officers and the people who are filing the complaints. In 2010, again, there were roughly 24 hundred calls and more than 17 hundred were resolved in the field. The remaining cases in 2010, it was about six hundred 80, those get referred to internal affairs. And from there a number of things could upon ha. You could file a -- they could just file a paperwork on it. It could be resolved another way, or it could lead to an actual investigation. And again, in 2010, there were 82 investigations launched by internal affairs. And that number has stayed relatively steady over the past several years. In 2006, there were 98 investigations, but since then, it's ranged from about 73 to 87 a year.

CAVANAUGH: And what is the department -- we're talking the San Diego police department doing in response to, as I say, this recent string of officer misconduct complaints?

ORR: Well, the chief has launched a seven step program to deal with misconduct. We talked about before, he's launched a 24 an hour anonymous hot line. They're reviewing attorney manuals, supervisors are getting ethics training, officers are getting wellness assessments, but with all that said, the department does not believe it could be predicted any of the more serious cases we've seen lately based on these complaint trends. And here is pall copper. The department's legal council.

NEW SPEAKER: When you have a department of almost two thousand police officers, you are going to get unfortunately some level of misbehavior, and sometimes it's criminal misconduct.

ORR: And again, that's the argument that there's always a few bad apples in the bunch. I've heard that from other police experts I've spoken with, that they are a sampling of the population as a whole. So not everyone's gonna behave well. And I should also add real quick that there is some level -- there's nor awareness now, so perhaps people are calling in more cases. That is a factor to be considered as well.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for running down these numbers, Katie.

ORR: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr. On the line with me now is doctor Michael Mantell. He has a practice La Mesa, and he served as the San Diego police department's first chief psychologist back in the '80s. Doctor man tele, hello.

MANTELL: Hello, good to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: What do you make of these numbers?

MANTELL: Well, I think this there's not a police department on the globe that doesn't have complaints coming into it about the way citizens feel they're treated. And not every complaint is founded. It's important to understand that just because a complaint is made doesn't mean necessarily that in fact an officer was involved in some kind of misconduct. I think that what's got our attention right now, though, is the criminal activity. Which is far different than day to day citizen complaints. The idea that one is serious and one is not is a little silly to me, frank he. Because back in the '80s it was all serious. A citizen's complaint against an officer is very serious. And this is built on the notion called broken windows, broken business. And in New York City, when they started taking care of little tiny thing, like fixing up windows in neighborhoods, suddenly everything got better in that neighborhood. Crime went down. And I think that the sense of partnership between the police department and the community here in San Diego is going to heal because of the attention that the department is bringing on itself.


MANTELL: Remember that the chief was the one who was very hard on himself. He said, you know, I apologize, it's gonna take a long time to regain the trust. And I think he's under estimating the sense of support that we feel for our department in this town.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor man tele, is there any linkage that we can find in an increase in citizen complaints and what perhaps might be called a climate within the police department where misconduct is perhaps increasing? Do you find any linkage or have you found any linkage between that?

MANTELL: Well, again I think it's naive to think there's no linkage. I think that the culture of a department -- now they're gonna be having training in early -- early identification and intervention, looking at use of force tactics, the psychological wellness assessments. Back in the '80s when I created the psychological services department, I was teaching in the academy. So it's from day 1, after the preemployment psychological screening, officers were taught how to prevent and manage stress. We had peer resource support teams where every officer would involved sitting with seven or eight other officers on a regular basis to talk about life, not just police department life, but their life, you know, as a way of dealing with day to day police officer life and family pressures. I think that building is that into the climate of the department, so that every lineup, every lineup with a sergeant, sergeants are looking to see where the problem is and learning to intervene. That's gonna change the climate back to one that really says, we are paying attention and care.

CAVANAUGH: Now, those procedures that you instated and inaugurated, are they still in place?

MANTELL: I don't know the fact that they're going to be bringing in the early identification and intervention system, once again looking at use of force, tactics in training, regular meetings with department employees, psychological wellness assessments, these are all positive steps. And then they're also going to be looking at the hard end of this thing, which is a 24 hour confidential complaint hot line. I'm sure we're gonna hear more complaints because anyone can pick up that phone now and call. A review of the department discipline manual, an increased ethic of internal affairs means we're putting officers on warning. But the message I think that citizens need to understand is not that the department is saying we're no worse off than anyone else. No business grows that way. That's not what the department is saying. And the department is not saying, well, it's only 10 bad apples. The department is saying we've got a problem, and we're public, and we're gonna take care of it. And we should give them a chance to see if these steps will, you know, bring these numbers down. On the one hand. And elevate the climate of a healthier -- psychologically healthier climate on the other.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor man tele, you do hear that bad apple rationale being used a great deal in the sense that there are so many police officers and so few of them actually are called up on any kind of misconduct, let alone serious criminal misconduct allegations, where does that logic break down for you? In other words, why does not -- why doesn't that answer the entire question?

MANTELL: Well, it's an excuse. Number one. And at this level of professionalism, we don't give excuses and we don't accept excuses. That's number one. Number two, I think that the idea that we have a lot of cops and so most of them are good, and the problem is only just a few of them doesn't make citizens feel better and doesn't address the, of there are to be none. In other words, how many bad cops are we gonna accept? The answer is zero. So I don't think -- I don't hear the department making the excuse, well, it's only a few bad apples. They're not saying -- I don't think they're saying that at all. I think the chief is doing a wonderful job in trying to refocus everyone's attention in a healthy way. I want to give him a chance to is succeed.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we did hear as when the chief came out and apologized for these recent allegations of misconduct that some of the internal procedures to manage the way police officers are feeling and reporting their misconduct allegations had broken down a little bit because of budget constraints. Do you see this new 70 point plan that the chief has put in place as addressing all the issues that you'd like to see addressed within the department?

MANTELL: I think they're addressing many. What I would like to see is the psychological services that is available right now being a proactive part of the department, teaching in the academy, meeting at lineups, going on ride alongs, being part of the chief's regular meetings. I sat in chiefs' meetings I think it was daily. I don't recall. It was a while ago. But certainly sat in on the chief's meetings, infused the discussions that the chiefs were having as they were making decisions, program attic decisions with psychological well being. So that it's not an annual part of an assessment. Three hundred and 64 days is too long. Bringing the psychology staff into the police academy, bridging them at lineups, having them go ride along, as I say and sitting with chiefs so that every decision that's made is an employee health enhancing decision. Whether it's -- what kind of candy bars are stuffed in the candy machines as opposed to healthier fruits to what about a wellness news letter once a month to every officer? What about those kinds of things, focusing on stress prevention, not just management kinds of things. Talking about physical fitness, bringing in more opportunities for officers to meet with their families and talk about the stress of the job. I would like to see those as well as these kinds of activities. And it may be budgetary, and it doesn't have to be budgetary as the restrictions that stop these things. It may just need to be reshifting, reallocating where the resources are being held -- handled. Sitting in an office, waiting for an officer come talk about his or her problems, that's not enough. The early identification, bringing in the ethics training, that's all valuable. But having that psychologist be part of the air of the department I think will help a great deal.

CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with local psychologist doctor Mike will man tele, and doctor man tele, thank you.

MANTELL: Thank you, Maureen.

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