San Diego City Council unanimously endorses police reform ballot measure

San Diego Police Department officers make a traffic stop along El Cajon Boulevard on June 23, 2020.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

New review board would increase oversight, transparency, accountability of police in wake of protests


The San Diego City Council Tuesday unanimously endorsed plans for a new police review board that would have the power to launch independent misconduct investigations and subpoena witnesses. A formal vote to place it on the November ballot is set for July 7.

“It is time to shift power into the hands of the community and to have a more transparent board,” said Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, the City Council’s only Black member. “I’m happy that we’re moving this forward as part of a comprehensive plan for police reform.”

Other recent reform efforts in San Diego include a ban on police officers using carotid restraints, new Police Department de-escalation procedures and creation of an Office on Race and Equity.

“As great as this measure is, it isn’t the sole answer to the complex issue that our city, as well as the country as a whole, faces,” said Councilwoman Barbara Bry, adding she hopes the review board can build trust and momentum toward social justice. “It’s a step forward in the right direction.”

San Diego City Hall is reflected in the rear window of a San Diego Police Department vehicle.
San Diego City Hall is reflected in the rear window of a San Diego Police Department vehicle on June 23, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bry said San Diego residents shouldn’t view the vote as a rejection of the Police Department or its roughly 1,900 officers.

“I don’t view this as an anti-police measure; I view this as a pro-community measure in building the necessary trust between our residents and our police officers,” Bry said.

While the proposal has been in the works for several years, it gained new momentum in the wake of recent local and national police protests that have sparked calls for fundamental law enforcement reforms.

The new police review board — called the Commission of Police Practices — would replace the Community Review Board on Police Practices, a volunteer panel that critics say lacks the power and independence to do its job effectively.

The existing board reviews Police Department internal investigations of the most serious complaints lodged against city officers but doesn’t conduct its own probes, can’t subpoena witnesses and doesn’t have independent legal counsel.

The new board would be required to independently investigate all police-related deaths and officer-involved shootings. It could also choose to independently investigate other complaints made against officers.

The proposal endorsed Tuesday says those complaints could include use of force by a police officer resulting in great bodily injury, dishonesty in investigating a crime and incidents showing patterns of misconduct.

The new board would not investigate a complaint when no specific allegation or officer can be identified.

The board and its executive director would be appointed by the City Council. Its activity would be independent of the mayor and the Police Department.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery has spearheaded efforts to boost oversight, accountability of San Diego police officers
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

While the board would propose disciplinary actions against officers, the police chief would maintain final say on any disciplinary measures imposed. The ballot proposal also would allow police officers to appeal declarations by the commission that they are guilty of misconduct.

The proposal would also formalize and make permanent the police review board’s ability to have its own legal representation. The board had been represented by the city attorney’s office until September 2017, when City Attorney Mara Elliott granted the board the discretion to hire its own counsel.

More than 60 city residents spoke in favor of the proposal Tuesday.

“For too long Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have been harassed, harmed, and killed by the police,” said Yvonne Elkin. “This must end now. We all deserve to be safe in our own community.”

“The national outcry and local efforts against police violence should be a wake-up call for our City Council to act now to create systemic changes that uplift and protect Black and Brown communities and hold the police to high standards of accountability,” Sterling Tran said.

A San Diego Police Department vehicle is parked outside of San Diego City Hall on June 23, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It is incredibly important to me that the police are not allowed to police themselves,” said Caelie Ericksen-Stark. “There needs to be true independent citizen oversight.”

Some speakers lobbied for more sweeping measures such as reduced funding for police. Others asked for specific reforms, such as making local police training less like military training.

The new board also received support from local bar associations and local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. The proposal was led this spring by a group called San Diegans for Justice.

Councilman Scott Sherman praised Montgomery for working closely with local police to move the measure forward.

The city completed negotiations May 21 with the labor union representing police officers on the proposed ballot measure.

-- David Garrick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune