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Where El Cajon’s Council Candidates Stand On Police Review Boards

Reported by Christopher Maue

In the aftermath of the police shooting of an unarmed man, activists and community leaders called for El Cajon to set up a citizens review board. Some council candidates support that idea.

Tuesday’s election has the potential to change police accountability in El Cajon if new council members are elected.

In the aftermath of the shooting of Alfred Olango, an unarmed African man, by an El Cajon police officer, activists and community leaders called for El Cajon to set up a citizens review board for the police department. At a rally last month, speakers encouraged the crowd to vote for candidates who support a review board.

“A lot of people don’t understand the power of voting locally. We’re not talking about presidential right here, voting locally, making your voice heard,” said one man who would only give his name as Kuvo. “If you ask me what is the power of voting, I say, OK, right now we don’t have a citizens review board. If that’s something we want (put) into place, we need your voice for that, correct?”

Independent review boards, which are usually made up of civilians independent of the police department, investigate complaints against police officers.

The current El Cajon City Council voted against setting up a review board after it was recommended by the San Diego County Grand Jury in May.

But some of that city’s council candidates are in favor of a review board. If they’re elected on Tuesday, the council could revisit the proposal.

Related: Weeks Before Olango Shooting, El Cajon Said ‘No’ To More Police Oversight

The city does not have a primary election, so 10 candidates are running for three seats on Tuesday. Two council members — Bob McClellan and Star Bales — are incumbents running for reelection, and there’s one open seat.

Both of those incumbents did not respond to requests for comment. Bales voted to dismiss the grand jury’s recommendation to set up a citizens review board at a council meeting in August. McClellan was absent at that meeting.

Photo caption:

Photo by Kris Arciaga

A crowd of several hundred demonstrators march peacefully down Main Street in El Cajon, Oct. 1, 2016. They carry signs that read "Not One More" and "I Am Alfred Olango." Police officers fatally shot Olango, a Ugandan immigrant living in El Cajon, Sept. 27, 2016.

Some of the other frontrunners in the race do support a police oversight board, including Vickie Knight Butcher and Stephanie Harper, both endorsed by the San Diego Democratic Party.

Harper told KPBS a citizens review board should be implemented “right away,” and said if El Cajon had one, the shooting of Olango might have been prevented because the officer involved, Richard Gonsalvez, was the target of a sexual harassment suit.

“Review boards are for just this kind of thing,” she said. “That’s a person who probably shouldn’t have been a police officer, and a review board would check on that kind of thing.”

Butcher did not respond to requests for comment, but said at a forum last month she supports a review board.

“I definitely think we need to have (one) and cannot afford in a city this diverse to not have that diversity reflected in our governance and on our police force. (We need to) create environments where we need to have an open dialogue,” she said. “We need to heal.”

The third candidate with a Democratic Party endorsement, Ben Kalasho, does not support a review board and favors giving police body cameras instead. He said it’s already hard to recruit and retain police officers in El Cajon and worries a review board would exacerbate the problem.

“It’s easy for people to say they want a citizens review board, but to be honest with you, we’re not that smart to make a citizens review board,” he said. “We don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer, to be in that situation.”

He said he believes some of his opponents are saying they favor a review board to get votes.

Both incumbent council members are endorsed by the San Diego County Republican Party, as is a third candidate, Paul Circo. None of the three participated in the forum and did not respond to requests for comment.

Here are responses from the other candidates:

George Glover, veteran and IT professional:

Glover, a Republican, said a citizens review board should be “looked into,” but he doesn’t think it should be set up immediately.

El Cajon will vote next week on Measure S, which would change council elections so that candidates are voted in by districts instead of the city as a whole. Glover said it makes more sense for the council to wait, because if that change takes place, the review board could be made of members of each district. He suggested that would make the board more representative of the community.

“So tie that together with representatives from those districts to serve on some sort of board for police review or community action committee,” he said.

Glover said while the shooting of Olango was tragic, he worries about a knee-jerk reaction to it.

“I think what we need to do is separate the two, the formation of a citizens review board from that particular incident,” he said. “Not to say it’s not something that you consider going forward or you talk about.”

In the last three years, only 11 formal complaints have been made against the police department, despite police interacting with citizens more than 89,000 times each year.

Glover said he knows not everyone with an issue will file a complaint, but that the city has to work with the numbers it has.

Photo caption:

Photo by Megan Burks

George Glover, a candidate for El Cajon City Council, talks to KPBS, Nov. 2, 2016.

Joseph Fountain, special education teacher:

Fountain, a Democrat, supports a citizens review board and says it should be set up within a year.

“A citizens review board keeps honest cops honest,” he said. “The problem with holding police officers up to a high standard is it’s all internal. If you don’t have a citizen oversight board, you don’t observe how they work.”

Humbert Cabrera, computer engineer:

Cabrera, a Republican, does not support a citizens review board at this time.

“My stance is to give the new police chief a chance to continue with the changes he has been working on over the past 10 months,” Cabrera said.

He recommended using volunteer groups to work with the police for improvements.

“I believe that if the press, these groups, the peace officers, and the citizens work together that Chief Jeff Davis will not only take us the rest of the way, but El Cajon will be the pillar that other agencies look to,” he said.

The tenth candidate, Steve Goble, did not respond to a request for comment.

Just two of 18 cities in the county have citizens review boards: San Diego and National City. Nine cities (Santee, Vista, Lemon Grove, Poway, San Marcos, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Imperial Beach and Encinitas) do not have independent police departments, but instead contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, according to the grand jury report on citizens review boards.

The Sheriff’s Department has a Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board of nine to 15 volunteer members approved by the Board of Supervisors who investigate complaints.

Along with El Cajon, six other cities (La Mesa, Escondido, Oceanside, Carlsbad, Chula Vista and Coronado) have independent police departments but no citizens review boards.

San Diego’s Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices has 23 volunteer members who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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