By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
It has been a year and a half since former Helix High School student Brianna Bell was filmed being body slammed while handcuffed by a La Mesa Police officer, prompting community meetings and protests by students. A report on the incident released in January of this year found no fault by the officer, which led to calls for citizen oversight of police use of force complaints.
On May 21, a group of residents gathered for a presentation and discussion on “The Future of Police Oversight in La Mesa” put on by La Mesa Conversations. The panel included ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties Deputy Advocacy Director Christie Hill, former San Diego County Sheriffs Department officer Jamal McRae, attorney and author of the City of San Diego’s proposed charter amendment for police oversight process Andrea St. Julian, and La Mesa community activist Jack Shu.
Hill said that police oversight would be good for La Mesa, even though issues with policing have not risen to the levels of distrust in places like Ferguson, Missouri. She cited SANDAG statistics that showed the San Diego region has the second-highest rate for juvenile and adult arrests; that blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to be shot by police; and that car and body searches of people of color are higher “despite being less likely to have contraband compared to whites.”
Hill said accurate statistics play a vital role in holding police accountable and cited a new state law, AB 953, that mandates law enforcement to collect data on all stops and arrests to include race, gender, sexual orientation and other factors. The law is being phased in across the state by size of department and La Mesa is on the later end of the list of departments to adopt the new mandates.
“But you can advocate. You can have an oversight board that advocates for it to be adopted sooner,” she said. “When you have a community oversight board, you can explore those issues, get additional information that might not be available to the public, and to push for change and work with the police — because it can be a partnership. It doesn’t have to be antagonistic.”
McRae also sees oversight as a way to improve police and community relations.
“I believe that this committee is so important,” he said. “Not to police the police, but to show the community that La Mesa PD will do everything in its power to be transparent and to restore faith in the police force.”
St. Julian said she spent the last two years researching charter amendments and ordinances from across country that create citizen review boards to author the charter amendment for San Diego. The research made her a staunch supporter of police oversight.
“To answer the question directly, ‘Is it important for La Mesa to have a citizen’s oversight board?’ Absolutely,” she said.
St. Julian cited an Obama administration report on policing that found effective policing is a result of community trust in police and accountability for police.
“The best way to get those two things is by having a citizen’s oversight board of some type,” she said.
St. Julian said there are three types of oversight: a review model that reviews what internal investigation the police have done; an investigatory model where the commission or board investigates each complaint; and an auditor model focuses on structures, policies and practices of the police department. She recommended La Mesa adopt a hybrid. She also said that citizens be fully involved in creating it.
“Don’t just leave it to your city attorney to write this. That’s not going to work for you. You have to be involved.”
Shu said he has been working on garnering support for a police oversight committee in La Mesa for several months. He also has been surveying citizens about their views on local policing to gauge public interest and opinion of police oversight.
“There’s a difference on how people respond to these surveys based on their age, income and their race,” he said. “That’s not right that just because of their color, how they feel about law enforcement is different, how much trust they have.”
The next step to forming a police oversight committee is to have City Council take action and form a task force to put together a plan for La Mesa, Shu said.
“If the City Council doesn’t take that action or the City Council decides to do something that is very weak, looks good but doesn’t have any real effectiveness, then we’ll have to go another route, which is putting something on the ballot,” he added.
In answering questions from the audience, the panel explained some scenarios where an oversight board could make improvements to police departments. A board could recommend additional racial bias training for officers if it is deemed necessary. A board could also help implement policies dealing with homelessness.
“One thing that I think law enforcement and advocates can agree on is that law enforcement should not be our first responders to mental health crises or homelessness. That is not their expertise,” Hill said. “So if you have an oversight board, that is another opportunity for that board to make recommendations about what’s needed.”
Another question from the audience asked how the oversight commission would be set up and what policies it would include. Shu said the committee should be made up of residents with varied backgrounds, including students, people of color, people from the faith community, business leaders and the like to reflect La Mesa’s diversity. He also said the committee should be setup to include safeguards like ensuring that if there is an attorney to review something, that attorney does not work for the city.
In addition to her previous recommendations of a hybrid model and a charter written by citizens and not city officials, St. Julian advised that the oversight group should be “truly independent” and also give the commission “the authority to investigate those complaints that are important and the power to investigate other complaints.”
Oversight committees should not be tasked with looking at everything because then they won’t have resources to investigate serious matters, St. Julian said.
At the end of the discussion, panel members urged the audience members to support police oversight by informing neighbors and other residents about the plan and to pressure City Council by speaking up at meetings. La Mesa City Councilmember Dr. Akilah Weber, who is also a board member of La Mesa Conversations and was present at the panel discussion, announced that City Council will be discussing the possibility of police oversight at one of its July meetings.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.