Editor's note: A warning that this story contains audio from police body camera footage that some listeners may find disturbing.
Two-and-a-half years after San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved more robust community oversight of law enforcement, the commission charged with reviewing cases of alleged police misconduct has effectively ceased operations.
The backlog of unreviewed cases is so bad that the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) is now closing many internal investigations without any input from the city’s oversight commission.
“It is a travesty,” said Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice. “The City Council has worked in such a way that, instead of creating a more robust oversight mechanism for the city and for the police department, they have basically destroyed it at this point.”
St. Julian authored Measure B, which appeared on the November 2020 ballot and passed with 75% of the citywide vote. The measure called for the creation of the Commission on Police Practices, a watchdog panel made up of community volunteers with the power to launch its own investigations and subpoena witnesses.
However, the San Diego City Council has yet to appoint members to the new commission, and people close to the issue say it could be at least another year and a half before it’s fully active.
After Measure B passed, the city established an interim Commission on Police Practices that’s supposed to maintain basic community oversight of SDPD until the more powerful commission is established. But the interim commission has steadily lost members amid widespread burnout and announced last month that it would no longer review cases of alleged officer misconduct or hold public meetings.
District 4 Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who led the City Council’s handling of the Commission on Police Practices, declined multiple interview requests for this story. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera also declined interview requests.
Elo-Rivera’s office promised a statement to KPBS but instead sent out a news release to all local media Wednesday afternoon touting the planned appointments of new commission members. The news release did not address the myriad problems facing the commission.
A KPBS investigation found the current crisis has been years in the making and revealed the following:
- From January 2021 to April 2023, the interim commission lost half its members. Commission leaders pleaded with the City Council to appoint replacement commissioners, but those requests were ignored.
- During that time, the number of alleged misconduct cases annually reviewed by the commission plummeted. In fiscal year 2021, it reviewed 124 cases; in fiscal year 2022, it reviewed 103 cases. In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the commission is expected to review fewer than 60 cases.
- Meanwhile, the backlog of unreviewed cases has steadily climbed. In early 2021, the backlog was about 50 cases. Today, it’s more than 150 cases — and will undoubtedly grow as the commission goes on hiatus.
- Roughly 100 cases in the backlog are related to more serious allegations of misconduct — including arrests, discrimination and use of force. At least 60 have been in the backlog for so long that, by law, SDPD had to close them without input from the commission.
It’s these unreviewed cases, which will never see community oversight, that haunt current and former commissioners.
“We can't guarantee somebody who's being pulled over right now that their complaint is going to be heard and given a fair shake by this commission,” said Patrick Anderson, a professor at UC San Diego who served on the interim commission. “That's a tragedy. And it's a political disaster.”
Measure B largely tasks the City Council with shaping the new commission. While the council passed an ordinance in October that lays out the commission’s framework, many steps and likely many months remain before it’s fully implemented.
In a written statement shared through a spokesperson, Montgomery Steppe did not directly address the commission’s problems except to say that the implementation process “has been met with challenges of bureaucracy and resistance.”
“I'm proud of the work that our office owned during each step of this process, with my ultimate goal to ensure the Commission functions efficiently, transparently, and fairly,” the statement read. “I fully commend each Commission member who has volunteered countless hours to police oversight. Their service to San Diego has significantly influenced each justice-impacted resident in this city.”
Elo-Rivera’s news release announced that the City Council will begin appointing commission members later this month but did not say anything about why it’s taken so long.
“We look forward to the meeting and, more importantly, the soon-to-be appointed Commission on Police Practices beginning the work that San Diego’s voters envisioned in November, 2020,” Elo-Rivera stated in the press release.
Still, community leaders and former commissioners are dismayed at the amount of time it’s taken the City Council to follow through on Measure B and how council members allowed the interim commission to deteriorate.
“It's been way too long,” said St. Julian. “Two-and-a-half years from Measure B and we still don't have a functioning commission at all.”
Measure B and the 2020 reckoning
Community oversight of police — in one form or another — has existed for decades in San Diego. However, past review boards were given few investigative powers and advocates like St. Julian had long argued that they were essentially toothless. Yet, reform efforts failed.
That changed in 2020. The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor touched off fervent protests in San Diego and across the country, and many people demanded greater police accountability. In the face of mounting public pressure, the City Council unanimously approved Measure B to appear on the ballot.
“The City Council really worked strenuously against us for many years,” St. Julian said. “It wasn't until 2020 when they knew and understood that the desire of the voters of San Diego was so strong.”
Measure B replaced the existing oversight board with the Commission on Police Practices. The new commission has a much larger budget and significantly broader authority to monitor police activity.
In addition to reviewing the department’s internal investigations, the new commission could launch independent investigations into alleged police misconduct and subpoena witnesses. Also, commission members would be supported by a paid staff of investigators and community coordinators along with an independent counsel.
Ariana Federico, the organizing director for the nonprofit Mid-City CAN, campaigned for Measure B ahead of the 2020 election. She organized phone banking and neighborhood canvassing.
“I was really excited to know that a lot of people really saw and understood the intention behind an independent commission,” Federico said.
The new commission could not be formed overnight. Among other things, the City Council had to establish a legal framework for implementing the commission and have it go through the meet-and-confer process with the police union. So, the Council created an interim commission made up of members from the previous review board.
But there were complications from the outset. The push for more police accountability in 2020 also resulted in a spike in complaints against SDPD officers. At the same time, the pandemic impacted case review. It took the police department at least several months to grant case reviewers remote access to internal investigation files, which created the initial backlog.
Heading into 2021, the interim commission was already playing catch up.
Burnout leads to growing backlog
Poppy Fitch is among the community members who’ve served on the interim commission. Fitch, who is director of disability support programs and services for the San Diego Community College District, said she believes “community oversight of policing is an important component of community trust.”
Fitch spoke about her experience on a recent afternoon in her Mission Valley office. Next to her desk is a small framed sign that reads, “Many hands make light work.”
It’s an ethos that was put to the test after Measure B passed. The interim commission had 20 members at the start of 2021 — but those many hands bore a heavy burden.
The volunteer commissioners routinely dedicated dozens of hours every month to reviewing body camera footage and reading internal investigation reports, which often contained graphic material from police shootings and use of force incidents. Yet, the backlog of cases continued to grow.
The interim commission also advised the City Council on how to best implement Measure B and organized lengthy roundtable discussions to elicit community feedback.
“I was very quickly spending 20 to 30 hours a week just on commission work,” said Anderson, the UCSD professor and former commissioner. “It was essentially a second job.”
The heavy workload might have been sustainable if the City Council moved quickly to stand up the new commission. But the process dragged on for many months. City Attorney Mara Elliott released a draft implementation ordinance. Elliott’s plan drew criticism from community groups and advocates, so the city brought in outside counsel to draft a new ordinance.
Meanwhile, the interim commission had begun to fall apart. Burnt-out commissioners began submitting their resignations, which increased the workload for those who remained.
“All of these factors (led) to an absolutely untenable situation,” Anderson said.
In January 2022, the chair of the interim commission sent a memo to the City Council, pleading with council members to appoint new commissioners.
“The Commission may soon be unable to provide the civilian oversight the community expects and demands,” the memo warned. It continued, “The workload is simply not sustainable — especially for a volunteer Commission already putting in 20-60 hours a month each.”
Sharmaine Moseley, the commission’s interim executive director, said the commission made “many requests” to the City Council for replacement members.
“It was very frustrating,” said Moseley. “That’s where the breakdown occurred.”
By last June, Fitch said she felt “depleted” and “exhausted.” She made the difficult decision to resign from the interim commission and admonished city leaders on her way out.
“While I understand that the wheels of government move slowly, I am disappointed that the City Council and Mayor's Office have not done more in support of the establishment of the full Commission,” Fitch wrote in her resignation letter. “I am disappointed that a dwindling group of community volunteers has been asked to do much, much more with much less.”
Anderson, who resigned in July last year, also criticized the city for not following through on the community’s vision of Measure B.
“A Commission that does not have the full faith and trust of the community it represents cannot achieve the kind of meaningful transformation in public safety that we all deserve,” Anderson wrote in his resignation letter.
Halting case reviews
As resignations poured in, the interim commission reviewed fewer and fewer cases of alleged police misconduct. Commission members had no choice but to prioritize the most urgent cases.
Last year, the commission stopped reviewing allegations of improper procedures and lack of courtesy by officers, according to Doug Case, the commission’s acting chairman. But it still couldn’t keep up with the backlog of more serious cases related to arrests, discrimination and use of force.
This is crucial because, according to California’s Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights, a police department must, in the vast majority of cases, close an investigation and implement punishment for an officer within one year of starting the investigation.
KPBS confirmed that at least 60 of the more serious cases in the backlog have passed the one-year mark and therefore were closed before the commission could exercise oversight. Another seven backlogged cases will be more than a year old by the end of the month.
Moseley confirmed there have been cases in the last few years where the commission disagreed with SDPD’s internal investigation or recommended stronger punishment for an officer, but the case had exceeded the one-year time limit. She was unable to specify the exact number of cases.
At last month’s interim commission meeting, acting chair Case announced the commission would pause its case review and stop holding public meetings. Simply put, there aren’t enough commissioners to carry on the work.
At the meeting, Case expressed hope that the City Council would move quickly to appoint the new slate of commissioners to the permanent Commission on Police Practices. Those commissioners would still need to go through extensive training before case review could begin again.
But he noted the City Council had refused to provide updates in response to his inquiries.
“We have no additional information of when they’re going to be making those appointments,” Case said at the meeting. He added, “For some reason, they’re being very secretive about the process.”
KPBS contacted Case on Wednesday afternoon after Elo-Rivera’s office sent out the news release announcing the City Council’s plans to appoint new commissioners. Case said he received a heads-up on the announcement a few hours before it was sent out.
But he asked KPBS to forward him the press release because Elo-Rivera’s office didn’t send it to him.