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Who Killed San Diego’s Police Oversight Reform Measure?

A San Diego police officer with a police dog waits outside a house with a pos...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: A San Diego police officer with a police dog waits outside a house with a possible suspect inside Friday, July 29, 2016.

A proposed amendment to the San Diego City Charter that would beef up civilian oversight of the San Diego Police Department died last week, when City Council members failed to authorize talks on the measure with city employee unions.

The measure needed a simple five-vote majority on the council to be placed on the November ballot, and at one point it appeared to have enough support to clear that hurdle. But despite the city having months to get the measure ready for voters, a series of procedural delays ultimately led to the measure's demise.

Kate Yavenditti is an attorney and volunteer activist with Women Occupy San Diego, the ballot measure's sponsor. She said she was hesitant to point the finger at any one person, but that her group saw a clear political effort to sabotage the measure.

"It's clear when you look at the timeline that there has been delay built into the timeline of getting our item on the agenda, getting information to us and then this last minute vote," she said.

The proposal, first discussed by the council's Rule Committee on April 11, would have dissolved the current Community Review Board on Police Practices and created a new commission with the power to conduct its own investigations into complaints of officer misconduct, police shootings and in-custody deaths. The current CRB only reviews investigations conducted by the San Diego Police Department's Internal Affairs division.

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Yavenditti said at the April 11 Rules Committee meeting that while CRB members are hard-working volunteers, the board's structure still fails to inspire trust among some community members.

"Unfortunately most of the community still doesn't trust ... a process that is dominated by the police department," she said.

The San Diego Police Officers Association made no secret of its opposition to the proposal. Jack Schaeffer, the union's president, said the change was unnecessary, and that SDPD Internal Affairs has expert detectives with years of experience. The city's board works better than its regional counterpart, he said, and a civilian-led commission may not have the know-how to conduct a professional investigation.

"The CRB has the benefit of being able to look at a thorough investigation, getting to see all the body-worn cameras, any other video and evidence, and pick it apart," Schaeffer said. "So review really isn't a strong enough word. They're auditing the work of experts."

Schaeffer added it was unclear how much the new commission would cost, and that the new model would not necessarily inspire more trust in law enforcement.

"No matter what we're going to do, there's still going to be mistrust in the community by some," he said.

When the police oversight measure failed last week, several council members said there was not enough time to resolve the city's "meet and confer" obligation to city employee unions in time for the Aug. 10 deadline to send ballot measures to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters. State law requires the city to negotiate with those unions prior to placing on the ballot any measure that could affect employees' working conditions or compensation.

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Some critics have blamed the ballot measure's failure on City Council President Myrtle Cole, who controls the agendas for the Rules Committee and full City Council. Cole's office declined an interview request, but spokeswoman Paulene De Mesa said Cole supported the measure and did not delay it.

When asked when Cole first became aware of the city's meet and confer obligations to clear the measure for the ballot, De Mesa sent this via email: "On Thursday July 19th the Council President was notified via a memo from the City Attorney's office that the Meet and Confer process was required with two City labor organizations. This proposal followed the same process as all the other ballot measure proposals submitted by the public."

Nearly a month before that City Attorney's Office memo, however, the City Council discussed the meet and confer process related to the police oversight measure in closed session on June 26. The meet and confer issue was also reiterated by a deputy city attorney directly to Cole at the July 11 Rules Committee meeting. De Mesa declined to clarify the timeline of Cole's awareness of the issue.

Gerry Braun, chief of staff for City Attorney Mara Elliott, said the City Attorney's Office brought the labor negotiation issue to the council proactively and that council members should all know when such talks with unions are necessary.

"I don't think there's any doubt that everybody on the City Council understands what the (city's obligation to labor unions) is at this point," he said, pointing to a recent California Supreme Court decision finding the city violated meet and confer laws with the 2012 Proposition B pension reform measure.

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Adding to activists' suspicions is Cole's decision to hear testimony on the meet and confer issue at the very beginning of the council's July 30 meeting, despite the item being last on the council's very long agenda. Yavenditti said many more supporters were prepared to speak in favor of the measure, but that most had not yet arrived at the meeting. About two dozen people spoke in favor of the measure at the July 11 Rules Committee meeting, but only three people gave testimony in favor at the full council meeting.

De Mesa did not offer an explanation for why the meet and confer item was taken first in the meeting, but said it was "normal practice to hear items out of order during council meetings." She added: "If you review the tape of the meeting, you will notice that the council president was going to hold up Council voting on the item until the public had an opportunity to speak on the item, meaning she was concerned that speakers had not come forth and was going to continue the item until later in the meeting or until speakers arrived and spoke."

Yavenditti said Women Occupy San Diego had been working on reforming the CRB for more than two years and would continue its efforts into the next election in 2020.

"We will continue to do everything that we can do get this proposal on the ballot," Yavenditti said. "We just want all of our supporters, everybody who's counting on this, to know that."

A proposal to overhaul civilian oversight of San Diego police officers once appeared to have enough support to make it on this November's ballot. So who killed it?

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