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New study calls for strengthening county law enforcement oversight

A recent state audit condemned San Diego County Jails for seeing 185 in custody deaths over 15 years. Now KPBS Race and Equity Reporter Cristina Kim says a new study is calling for stronger law enforcement oversight.

San Diegans for Justice, the group behind Measure B that established the city of San Diego’s Commission on Police Practices, is taking on the county’s Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board or CLERB, which oversees the Sheriff and Probation Departments.

On Thursday, the group released a new study that outlines several recommendations for strengthening CLERB’s oversight powers, such as expediting investigations, ensuring investigators have access to crime scenes and enforcing the board’s subpoena power.

San Diegans for Justice commissioned the study after the group held several community listening sessions where the need to address county law enforcement surfaced. It was authored by Sharon R. Fairley, a University of Chicago law professor and expert in police accountability.

RELATED: CLERB begins on scene responses to deputy shootings, custody deaths

The most important step to strengthen CLERB is expanding its jurisdiction beyond Sheriff’s deputies, according to Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice.

“For CLERB to be limited to only investigating alleged wrongdoing by deputies is really too limiting,” St. Julian said. “CLERB should be able to investigate complaints against all staff.”

The report comes on the heels of a state audit released last month that found that 185 people died while in custody at San Diego County jails between 2006 through 2020 and that CLERB failed to investigate nearly one-third of those deaths.

“The community has suffered from a lack of power and strength from the CLERB,” said Yusef Miller with the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and the North County Equity and Justice Coalition. “The community has suffered not only in inconvenience but the loss of life.”

The death of Elisa Serna, who died after hitting her head at a county facility in 2019, was cited by both Miller and St. Julian as an example of why a stronger CLERB is needed.

St. Julian argued that CLERB should have the ability to investigate all Sheriff Department staff members, including the jail nurse in that case, to better uncover misconduct.

The nurse has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, but the deputy in the case was initially cleared of misconduct. Last year, CLERB reversed its previous decision and filed two counts of misconduct against the deputy who witnessed Serna hit her head and then left her alone.

Paul Parker, the executive officer of CLERB, will formally present the report to board members next Tuesday and said they are open and committed to the recommendations outlined by this new report and the state audit.

“If the community members in San Diego want the best possible civilian oversight we’re going to have to expand the type of mode that we have. Right now, everything that we do is based solely on a complaint,” said Parker. “As opposed to looking at things that are not complaint-based, [such as] pattern and practice investigations, access to databases or whatever has to happen for us to be able to do the appropriate oversight, true oversight, of a law enforcement entity.”

CLERB is already in the process of ensuring investigators have access to crime scenes and is working on several measures to expedite investigations and case management, Parker said. But expanding CLERB’s power or jurisdiction would require a vote by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

St. Julian said she’s had encouraging talks with Supervisor Nathan Fletcher’s office and hopes to see this report spur fundamental changes within CLERB and then at the county level.