Policing the Police: San Diego’s Problems

by on January 14, 2015 · 2 comments

in History, Politics, San Diego

San diego police carsBy Doug Porter

As police departments nationwide are facing increasing scrutiny, local law enforcement agencies are finding themselves under the spotlight.

A news story based on internal documents obtained by the local NBC affiliate on use of force reveals the San Diego Police Department documented 16,238 incidents in which an officer used force in 2014.

A report in Voice of San Diego calls points out what I think are questionable “crime prevention” practices by the County Sheriffs Department at the Lemon Grove trolley station.

And then there’s the promise of a soon-to-be-released report from the Police Executive Research Forum under contract by the US Justice Department on SDPD practices instituted in the wake of several years of scandals and lawsuits regarding sexual misconduct.

Those stories are largely looking at the problem from the “top down,” based on information gleaned from departmental reports and interviews with officials.

city heights demoLooking at police conduct from the “bottom up,” there was the protest last night in City Heights. The family of Victor Ortega was the focus of the evening. They say the 31 year old man was fatally shot by an SDPD officer on June 4, 2012 as he lay on the ground face down in handcuffs.

While a lawsuit filed by the family is making its way through the courts they are appealing to the public for help with legal fees, support for Victor’s two children and above all, justice.

Another demonstration–again in City Heights –this coming Saturday (January 17th)–the AF3IRM group is demanding “ an end to police sexual assault and the militarization of our community for there have been more sexual assaults reported in City Heights then other communities without a heavy police presence.”

Two days later, on Martin Luther King’s birthday (January 19th), at 8am the Coalition Against Police Violence will start out on a Four Mile March from the City Heights Library. Similar events are being held in 23 other cities nationwide. Organizers say the goal is to increase awareness about “America’s epidemic of racial profiling and police brutality, and to honor all those who have been injured or died as a result of police violence.”

The issues surrounding police conduct, particularly regarding deaths of young black men, have increased awareness on the subject nationwide. As these local events point out, San Diego is far from immune from the problem.

SDPD Documents Show How Often Force is Used

police-use-of-force-colorNBC7 reporter Wendy Fry filed a story yesterday based on SDPD data related to force incidents based on a records request made back in November.

The department’s records are based on “self-assessment” by officers on the effectiveness of “use of force.” Not surprisingly, they tell the SDPD management force was effective 90 percent of the time. (This figure includes incidents where it was undetermined whether force was effective.)

Among other things, the NBC story says the SDPD documented 16,238 incidents in which an officer used force. These incidents in 2014 included officers pointing their firearms (1,658 times) and using a carotid restraint, otherwise known as a chokehold, 246 times.

As a matter of context, it should be pointed out that the SDPD responds to about half a million calls annually.

Here’s what I thought was the most troubling part of the story:

NBC 7 also found that SDPD has nearly twice as many officer-involved shootings than any other city, out of more than 40 mid-size cities surveyed. The 25 officer-involved shootings in San Diego for 2012, 2013 and most of 2014 involved at least 12 fatalities.

The police departments with the next highest figures for officer-involved shootings were Dallas Police Department, which had 12 total, and Fort Worth Police Department with 14 in the same years.

SDPD had no response to questions about those figures.

There continue to be troubling reports about SDPD conduct even as Chief Shelly Zimmerman has mounted a full-court public relations push.

CRB logoThe entity tasked with processing citizen complaints, the Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices (CRB), which is limited to scrutinizing the department’s Internal Affairs reviews of complaints. The 23 member volunteer group has no power to compel testimony, obtain documents and its findings are often ignored by the department.

The lack of paid staff means that annual reports for the CRB haven’t been filed since 2009, according to an article in City Beat.

Since 2009, a little more than 2 percent of category-one allegations of misconduct have been sustained, resulting in an officer being disciplined, according to CRB data. Fiscal year 2014 saw the peak with 4 percent, or seven instances, of category-one allegations sustained out of 162 allegations. During the past six years, more than 80 percent of these complaints have been for excessive use of force or improper arrest.

CRB has also seen a dramatic increase recently in the number of cases it reviews. In fiscal year 2014, the board reviewed 118 cases, a more than three-fold increase from 2009, when it reviewed only 32 cases.

Here’s part of a 2012 grand jury report ofnthe Citizen’s Review Board, quoted by Martha Sullivan in a February 2014 Voice of San Diego op-ed:

“The Citizens Review Board had been allowing personnel from the SDPD Internal Affairs Division to attend the board’s closed session meetings for several years. This could have an effect on the board’s independent decisions.

Interviewees told the grand jury that they have heard Internal Affairs personnel tell the board they never want any dissenting votes going from the board to the mayor or the chief of police.

Board leadership fosters a lack of decorum among its members, which is in direct violation of board bylaws. This has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation perpetuated by some board members. This contributes to a high turnover rate of prospective board members who are appointed to the board as vacancies occur. Board leadership is weak and lacks the will to control CRB meetings including the behavior of CRB members toward one another.”

Operation Lemon Drop: Profiling High Tech Style

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Keats wrote about the County Sheriffs’ program of “intelligence led policing” whereby 16,631 people riding the Orange Line trolley through the Lemon Grove station were “contacted” by dozens of police officers surrounding the area.

The four month long program, spread over five days, was supposed to “identify people likely to commit serious crimes, and create an opportunity to arrest them for something else before that happens.”

624 people were found not to have proof of fare payment and held for for further questioning. 451 citations for that offense were issued. And there were 186 misdemeanor or felony arrests.

The regional realignment intelligence unit, a group including representatives from agencies throughout the region does data analysis on “1170s,” non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders who have been released from prison under the Legislature’s realignment program. Social media feeds are monitored to determine likely locations where these individuals might appear.

What sounds like a plausible program on paper–who doesn’t want crime prevented?–ends up being something less-than-desirable in practice.

From the VOSD article:

“In July, an ACLU staff member who lives in Lemon Grove … ran head-on into what looked like a military operation that would have befitted the apprehension of a terrorist,” Christina Griffin, an ACLU organizer, said in a statement. “There were police and sheriff’s cars surrounding the Lemon Grove trolley station and what appeared to be about 70 police, sheriff and MTS officers, some in what looked like riot gear.”

Griffin said the staffer grew concerned when officers declined to stop her, and believed it was because she was a white woman.

“The qualifiers of when to ask riders if they are on parole or probation and whether this is based on race is very concerning,” Griffin said.

Rebuilding Trust at the San Diego Police Department

A feature in the Los Angeles Times focusing on Police Chief Zimmerman brings to light some consideratons relating to the SDPD and its practices in recent years.

Decades of tight budgets have left San Diego with one of the smallest police departments of any large U.S. city. Other departments offer better salaries and pensions, and each year dozens of officers leave for jobs elsewhere.

Zimmerman carries in her pocket a manpower rundown, as if the concern is never far from her mind: The department is authorized for 2,013 officers but has only 1,859. An additional 400 officers are eligible to retire.

“She faces challenges that are monstrous,” said Jeff Jordan, a police sergeant and vice president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn. “We are in a full-blown crisis in terms of the demographics in this department.”

buy the governmentWhen the Justice Department report on SDPD conduct and practices is released, these factors will undoubtedly be rehashed in press accounts as mitigating factors.

What won’t be talked about is the “Blue Wall” that protects officers from misconduct much of the time, and the racist dynamics that may exist within the sub-culture.

The incidents mentioned above and the feelings of mistrust and anger existing in economically challenged areas of the city are symptoms of a larger problem. Police have historically been used by the affluent to contain the “others” in our society. And given that the divide between the top and the bottom of the economic classes in society is growing, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned.

Picture of the Day:

Cardiff Kook as Charlie Hebdo (via Twitter)

Cardiff Kook as Charlie Hebdo (via Twitter)


This is an excerpt – really most of the column – of Doug Porter’s daily column at our sister online media partner, San Diego Free Press – SDFP or Freep for short.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mercy Baron OB Mercy January 14, 2015 at 2:22 pm

In relation to the shortage of police officers, that may be one of many reasons why OB is having so many problems with crime, which seems to be increasing lately.


Butch Cassidy January 14, 2015 at 2:45 pm

“What sounds like a plausible program on paper–who doesn’t want crime prevented?–ends up being something less-than-desirable in practice.”

Less than desirable? Try illegal, unconstitutional & completely unethical especially when the people that are supposed to be protect those rights are the ones committing the crime…


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