John Parker, Executive Officer of the San Diego County Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board
POV: When/how did civilian oversight develop in your community? Was it in response to particular incidents or practices?
John Parker: In San Diego we have two review boards, one for the city and one for the county. The city board preceded ours by about three years. The city board was voted into existence in 1986. In March of 1989 a grand jury report was issued regarding inadequate supervision and serious, systemic prisoner abuse in the San Diego County facilities. Compounding the issue was a great deal of animosity between the elected sheriff and the county board of supervisors. In 1990 another grand jury report recommended the creation of an advisory board to monitor the sheriff's department. A ballot measure to establish civilian oversight for the county was passed. The organization consists of eleven board members, nominated by the county's chief administrative officer, appointed by the board of supervisors. They serve three-year terms, and don't receive any compensation. The county board employs a staff, of which I am executive officer. I have two investigators and a clerical position. If a citizen files a complaint, we conduct an investigation independent of the sheriff's department. We document our findings in a report and submit it to the review board. We have subpoena power, but our findings are advisory only. If the board sustains allegations of misconduct, they make advisory findings and recommendations, including policy recommendations. In addition to investigating complaints, we have the authority to open our own investigation into the death of a citizen.
POV: Civilian oversight is popular in a number of cities, but its effects have varied. What are the key characteristics of effective civilian oversight?
Parker: I'm not sure you can measure how effective we are. Two years ago we had a record year. We got 250 complaints. Last year we got 150. This year we've seen more normal levels, and we'll probably end up with around 120 complaints. We do conduct a survey of citizens who file with us, but I think a lot of them rate us based on evidence supplied in their case. I think our effectiveness is measured by the citizens we reach. Approximately 60 percent of complaints come from inmates in county facilities, with the rest coming from out in the field. We keep statistics and analyze them. Some things, like unnecessary force and procedure complaints, those percentages seem to remain constant. In one district, if officers seem to be getting an inordinate amount of complaints, we include that in our monthly reports to the departments. If there are any issues where one deputy or a group of deputies get higher levels of complaints, we notify the sheriff's department.
Essentially we're a complaint department, and satisfaction with complainants is hard to achieve. They usually want something unreasonable; they usually want an officer fired, which is difficult. You've got to be able to prove something that happened, and provide some recorded evidence or an admission, some very credible witnesses in order to sustain findings. We've tried to measure customer satisfaction, how the citizens view our services, and typically they wait until the end of the process, and they tend to link us with the department somehow, instead of our capacity as an independent review board. A bad experience with the sheriff's department tends to relate to how they rate our department. Less than ten percent of our clientele respond to satisfaction surveys.
POV: Are civilian oversight boards and police departments inherently opposing interests? Can there be effective partnerships between them?
Parker: I don't think they're inherently opposed. We've had a great deal of success in our policy recommendations. We tend to look at issues like liability and risk management when we gauge the deptartment's procedures. If we have an issue that's been problematic, we view it as a potential risk issue. We try to point those things out and shape our policy recommendations to lessen the chance of liability exposure. The review board and the sheriff's department have parallel interests. We all have interest in policy that doesn't expose the department to liability in the long run. We want law enforcement to be excellent and strong, within the law and policy and procedures of the department.
POV: Has oversight been effective in the local community? Can you give some examples of effective cooperation?
Parker: One jail death case really stands out, and there are a number with similarities, involving the death of persons being subdued by the police -- maximum restraint or hog-tying of the subject. In some ways, the actions of law enforcement, the hogtying, or the restrictions of a person's breathing, resulting in a person's death, is pretty common in law enforcement. Having a number of those cases, we've sought to change the policy regarding four-point restraint and the manner in which people are subdued and observed after restraint. We're seeking to change the practice of leaving them on their chest, trying to avoid holding them down, restricting their torso, and restricting their breathing. There are issues every day regarding the manner in which prisoners are handled within the system, how they are classified in the jail, how medical attention is applied. We review the investigation, review films or videos, review the statements, interview witnesses and participating deputies if necessary, and look at policy versus actual actions. We look at evidence to determine if autopsy findings were contrary to official reports. Up until August of last year, all of our case hearings were held in public session. Then a couple of appellate findings in California courts limited our ability to release reports and hold public hearings. So we're currently holding closed hearings.
POV: Was it valuable to have public hearings?
Parker: Absolutely. Our reports were detailed, with respect to investigations and the evidence, with the exception of law enforcement interviews. I think it provided confidence to citizens to do this in open session, in the public eye. California police review in general has suffered because of those appellate court rulings.
Ultimately, when you make recommendations that are adopted by the department, behaviors change. They're supposed to change anyway, with the advent of new procedures. Then these changes filter down to the street in more humane policing. The deputy sheriff's association has fought civilian oversight at every step of the way. They attempted political and legal challenges from the inception of the review board, but they lost every single challenge, including subpoena authority. Then it was fairly silent for a time, and they didn't mount any serious challenges until the year 2000, when they successfully argued before the appellate court that deputies should have the right to challenge our advisory findings, even though the department was not disciplining based on our findings. If we recommended findings, the department would conduct its own investigation before discipline. The court ruled that our findings alone constituted punitive action, and that deputies had the right to challenge our findings with the civil service commission. There were two cases out of the city of San Diego that attacked the public reporting aspect of review boards, and whether civil service commissions could have open rulings. Both rulings went in favor of law enforcement and confidentiality. So they shut down any public reporting and any public hearings.
We are awaiting appeal. A local newspaper has challenged the closed hearing ruling. So we're awaiting an appellate court ruling on that challenge. Whatever the court decides will tend to give us a signal. We've considered challenging the reporting aspects of their ruling, but we're being withheld from taking any legal steps until the Union-Tribune lawsuit is settled. Depending on which way the ruling goes, we'll look for a way to produce redacted or code-named reports from our investigations.
POV: What new developments would you like to see in community oversight?
Parker: I'd like to see California state law on confidentiality of police personnel records changed to make some exceptions for the review board, as it currently does for the district attorney and for grand juries. The law could easily be changed to include independent review boards. I'm not suggesting we should be able to release information that jeopardizes law enforcement officers, but case investigation and findings should be the public's business. That was the intent when the public voted for the review boards.
John Parker spent twenty-two years in the Oakland police department before working as an investigator in the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints. He became the Executive Officer of the San Diego County Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board in 1997.