City attorney drafts law to remove city attorney from police surveillance

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San Diegans for Justice holds a press conference on the city’s draft ordinance establishing the Police Practices Commission. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For decades, the board charged with reviewing the San Diego Police Department’s most serious investigations into the internal affairs of the San Diego Police Department has relied on the city attorney’s office for legal advice.

This was at odds with people pushing for tighter oversight, who argued that the board should not receive advice from the same office that defends the police service from citizen lawsuits. In 2017, the new city attorney, Mara Elliot, agreed and gave council the opportunity to consult with independent legal counsel.

Now, amid a controversial debate over a draft ordinance that will guide the implementation of the new San Diego Police Oversight Board, reform supporters are once again asking whether the city attorney should stand up. withdraw and let an outside expert draft the law.

“Measure B provides for independent legal advice” for the commission, said Kate Yavenditti, an attorney and member of Women Occupy San Diego who is part of the multi-year effort to strengthen police oversight in San Diego. “Why are we still using the city attorney’s office? “

Measure B, which garnered 75% of voter support in November, replaces the old Police Practices Community Review Board with a new Police Practices Commission. The commission will have professional staff who will investigate incidents involving the use of force by the police, certain misconduct complaints, recommend policy revisions and ensure that the police department complies with all local requirements, state and federal data communications.

After weeks of delay, last month the city attorney’s office issued a draft ordinance that will govern the functioning of the commission.

Community groups that supported Measure B and spent months compiling a list of guiding principles for the new commission didn’t like what they saw. There was nothing in the ordinance regarding personnel or the budget, two things that can cripple police oversight if not given priority. The project also ignored one of the community’s most important demands: that the process for appointing members to the commission’s board be community-driven, with an emphasis on recruiting people from the communities. most watched communities in San Diego.

“The community could not have been clearer that the community wanted to appoint the commissioners themselves,” said Andrea St. Julian, the lawyer who drafted Measure B. “We were completely ignored. “

Instead, the project gave city council exclusive power to appoint and appoint commission members. He was also vague about the police service’s obligations to the commission when it comes to responding to policy recommendations and handing over documents required for investigations.

“[The city attorney’s] the legal and ethical responsibility is to protect their client, which is clear from the draft ordinance, which promotes SDPD in every way possible, ”Yavenditti said in an email to Voice of San Diego. “They should be taken out of this process completely.”

While state law requires the city attorney to conduct a final review of orders, nothing prevents the office from bringing in an outside expert to draft an order. A spokeswoman for Elliott said there was no conflict of interest in the drafting of the order by the city attorney’s office.

At a meeting last week of the city council’s public safety and neighborhood services committee, council members said some of the concerns about the draft ordinance could be addressed in other documents, such as the standard operating procedures of the commission, which the commissioners will draft.

But Patrick Anderson, an interim commissioner who called a series of roundtables on the new commission, said a weak ordinance could lead to a weak commission.

“There are certain things that need to be on the order and whatever the police force is required to do has to be on it,” he said. “If you don’t read [the city attorney’s] project as being strong enough in terms of how it holds the police department accountable – I don’t care if you are a lawyer or whatever – if that doesn’t feel strong enough to you, there is no other document that can be created by the commission which can be quite strong.

St. Julian drafted her own ordinance, a process she said took less than three days, compared to the six months that elapsed between when Measure B was created by the Secretary of State and the when the city attorney released his project.

“This [draft] should have been written in January, ”she said. “Then we’re going to have to fight to get a decent order. I don’t know how long this fight is going to take. This is not a good start. “

The dissatisfaction with the ordinance process comes amid the publication of a Center for Policing Equity study that found people of color were more likely to be arrested and searched by San Diego police than whites. According to the report, which looked at data between 2017 and 2020, blacks in San Diego were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested by police than whites, and five times more likely to be subjected to use. of the force. Asians and Latinxes were 1.5 times more likely to be arrested by police than whites.

Sharon Fairley, a police oversight expert and former head of the Chicago Independent Police Review Authority, said San Diego was not alone with competing visions of police oversight.

“It is not uncommon to see frictions arise over the power to grant law enforcement oversight,” she said. “If you are in a jurisdiction where the city attorney usually drafts the legislation, the conflict is sure to exist and it is a problem.”

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