San Diego County will restructure, expand powers of its independent law enforcement oversight group

Board Chair Kim-Thoa Hoang spoke at a meeting of the County of San Diego Citizen's Law Enforcement Review Board last June
Board Chair Kim-Thoa Hoang speaks during a meeting of the County of San Diego Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board at the San Diego County Administration Center on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 in San Diego, California.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County supervisors unanimously agreed to give Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board more resources, change nomination process


San Diego County supervisors unanimously agreed Tuesday to restructure and expand the powers of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, tasked with providing oversight over the Sheriff’s Department.

The board also gave the go-ahead to accelerate the creation of non-law enforcement “mobile crisis response teams,” which would use clinicians and other trained professionals — rather than armed law enforcement — to respond to nonviolent incidents involving people in behavioral or mental health crises.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who introduced both proposals Tuesday, said the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, historically has been understaffed and underfunded.

“This is a step, but again we have to show an increased commitment to address the real concerns and show that the citizen’s oversight of law enforcement is independent and has the proper oversight and authority to do their job,” Fletcher said. “That is what our communities are demanding and insisting on, and it’s what is appropriate.”

The two actions from the board come as racial justice issues and law enforcement accountability have taken center stage locally and nationally over the past month, with large protests against police brutality and the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Although law enforcement reform advocates have called for a variety of changes, strengthening CLERB has long been a priority.

Established by a voter initiative in 1990 following a series of abuse allegations inside county jails, CLERB was tasked with providing independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Department. Its effectiveness has often been questioned and criticized by people in the community.

In 2017, the group summarily dismissed dozens of death investigations, and CLERB has struggled with backlogs of cases in part because it has a handful of staffers and a relatively small budget of $1 million. By comparison, the Sheriff’s Department budget for the current fiscal year was approved at $967.1 million.

It is not yet clear how much CLERB’s budget and staff may grow; supervisors have said they expect to learn details during budget talks in late July.

Under the proposal adopted Tuesday, CLERB’s staff and functions will be reassigned to the jurisdiction of the county’s Finance and General Government Group rather than its Public Safety Group. The proposal also alters the way CLERB group members are selected to allow more community input.

Most important to advocates, CLERB’s oversight and investigative powers will be expanded under the new proposal.

The requirement that a formal complaint needs to be filed before CLERB can launch non-death investigations is removed under the proposal.

Now CLERB has authority to automatically review and launch investigations any time a peace officer fires a weapon, any time the use of force results in great bodily injury and any time a peace officer uses force during a protest or other event protected by the First Amendment.

The creation of non-law enforcement mobile crisis response teams is connected to county supervisors’ concerns about sheriff’s deputies handling behavioral health issues when they are not trained for that.

Last year, 54,000 of the 911 calls in the county were for issues involving behavioral health, mental health or a homeless person, Fletcher said.

Under the new proposal, the county would expand what had been a pilot program last year.

The mobile crisis response units are expected to cost about $10 million a year when operating at full capacity.

-- Charles T. Clark is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune