Agreement allowing independent investigation hastens transparency

Deadly Accident

On Feb. 14, Undersheriff Kelly Martinez signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board and San Diego County Sheriff’s department to include trained CLERB representatives at in-custody and deputy-involved shooting cases where death occurs, or is likely.

The CLERB, a group of eleven volunteers led by Executive Officer Paul Parker, was established in 1990 by San Diego county voters to independently and impartially investigate citizen complaints against San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies and probation officers.

Now, CLERB has jurisdiction to respond along with investigators at the time of an incident, ostensibly allowing the independent review board to access information sooner and subsequently recommend better investigation processes.

CLERB Executive Officer Paul Parker said he is “thrilled Martinez was willing to sign the dotted line” on the idea he proposed back in October 2021.

“This will increase transparency and build trust in the community. To give the CLERB office access right at the scene helps them with increased access to information they can use for investigations,” Martinez said.

According to Acting California State Auditor Michael Tilden, San Diego County jails had one of the highest death rates in the state from 2006 through 2020.

“The high rate of deaths in San Diego County’s jails compared to other counties raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff’s Department’s policies and practices,” Tilden wrote in a report released earlier this February.

Currently, the CLERB investigates allegations of use of excessive force, discrimination or sexual harassment, the improper discharge of firearms, illegal search or seizure, false arrest, false reporting, criminal conduct, death arising out of or in connection with the actions of a deputy or probation officer, and misconduct.

“We have the jurisdiction to identify systemic complaints and I believe it is the CLERB’s responsibility to identify and report on them,” Parker said, in order to identify and implement changes that might prevent future deaths.

The review board’s decisions on complaints and any related recommendations are advisory in nature, however and non-binding: they ultimately have no authority to compel the Sheriff’s department or the probation department to adopt its decisions, take action on policy recommendations, or impose discipline on any officer.

Still, Parker, who previously served as Executive Officer from 2017-18 and returned to his former role with the CLERB in November, 2020 said he feels it is important to perform independent investigations that potentially lead to policy change.

The board is making a case to obtain jurisdiction over mental health care providers who work alongside law enforcement officers in an effort to glean detailed incident details beyond what sworn officers can provide.

“Right now, we only have jurisdiction over sworn personnel and I maintain that is half the story,” Parker said.

A review of 30 individuals’ deaths from 2006 through 2020 found that some individuals who died within four days of arrest had serious medical or mental health needs that the Sheriff’s department’s health staff did not identify during the intake process, Tilden wrote in the February 2022 report.

Expanding their jurisdiction to include mental health care personnel involves working with labor unions, Parker said, then making a change to the CLERB charter but it is “a fight worth fighting” in order to produce better investigations.

He believes there is county support for the increased jurisdiction.

“We want to be thorough and timely, we want to make the recommendations to save a life and want to get jurisdiction over medical personnel so we can get the whole story,” Parker said.

Martinez said she personally believes the board should have full jurisdiction over everyone, not just sworn officers within the jail system, “wouldn’t be surprised if we move in that direction,” and is supportive of that increased jurisdiction.

There are also some “ridiculous” practices, Parker said, which hinder their ability to thoroughly complete independent investigations.

“There are case laws made in the early 2000s that locked us down with transparency— even plaintiffs can only get a highly redacted report,” Parker said, questioning how they are able to fully investigate a situation where they are not privy to detailed information.

The same audit that showed the high number of deaths which occurred under the Sheriff’s watch also said the CLERB “failed to review dozens of deaths in the Sheriff’s department’s jails” and advised state legislature might be necessary to force change, while also insisting the CLERB prioritize its own one-year limit on investigations.

According to the report, the Sheriff disagreed with findings while the CLERB agreed with recommendations.

“One of the things I preach all the time is that we are an advocate for no one. We’re an advocate for the truth. Wherever the truth takes us, that’s where the investigation should go. We’re impartial and go where the facts go, whether or not it’s detrimental to law enforcement, if the truth has been uncovered, I can sleep well,” Parker said.