January 30, 2023

Article at San Diego Union-Tribune

View original

Civilian review board will consider asking sheriff to release internal records on jail deaths

A man in a taqiyah and a suit speaks at a microphone in front of four people holding memorial posters for loved ones.

The civilian oversight board that monitors the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is proposing a formal recommendation that Sheriff Kelly Martinez release internal reports examining critical incidents such as in-custody deaths.

Paul Parker, the executive officer of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, has called a special meeting for Tuesday night so board members can discuss the sheriff’s retreat from a pledge she made during last year’s campaign.

Parker told the citizens panel in a memo last week that Martinez had promised last March to publicly release findings from the Critical Incident Review Board, a meeting of top officials that examines issues exposing the department to potential litigation.

But instead of releasing the reports, the Sheriff’s Department is posting summaries of critical incidents that resemble press releases. The department officials also will not release information pertaining to incidents prior to 2022.

San Diego, CA - September 28: San Diego County Sheriff candidate Kelly Martinez speaks during a candidate forum hosted by the San Diego Organizing Project at City of Hope International Church on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022 in San Diego, CA. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Public releasing a ‘brief synopsis of the facts it discussed’ … will clearly result in less comprehensive and less transparent publicly accessible information,” Parker told review board members.

The Sheriff’s Department defended the new sheriff’s decision to publish only summaries of critical-incident reviews rather than the board’s full reports. Officials argued that allowing the full reports to be released publicly could violate attorney-client privilege and expose taxpayers to litigation.

“If CIRB made a recommendation after a review, then that information should be included in the publicly posted report,” department spokesperson Lt. Amber Baggs told The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this month.

San Diego, CA - January 25: Surrounded with families who lost loved ones, Yusef Miller, of the Racial Justice Coalition, speaks about jail deaths at San Diego County Sheriff's headquaters on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023 in San Diego, CA. (Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board is a volunteer oversight panel made up of civilians that considers allegations of misconduct within the county sheriff’s and probation departments, and also examines shootings by law enforcement officers and deaths of people in custody.

The board has little formal authority but regularly makes policy and disciplinary recommendations aimed at improving practices at both county law enforcement agencies.

The citizens group’s work product is advisory only. Both the sheriff and probation chief are not obliged to implement the suggested policy changes or disciplinary recommendations issued by the review board.

Even so, the recommendation that Martinez begin releasing information about critical incidents carries some political weight.

Late last year, the Union-Tribune reported that both the sheriff’s and probation departments were months behind in responding to formal recommendations from the review board.

Within weeks of that report, sheriff’s officials formally rejected a proposal from the review board calling for screening employees and any other visitors for drugs as they enter any county jail.

The idea is to reduce drug overdoses and deaths among incarcerated people, who have died in San Diego County jails at an alarming rate in recent years, but sheriff’s officials have resisted that change.

The state auditor released a report last year noting 185 jail deaths between 2006 and 2020.

San Diego County Sheriffs downtown central jail

“To increase the transparency of Sheriff’s Department reviews of in-custody deaths, the legislature should require the Sheriff’s Department to either make public the facts it discusses and recommendations it decides upon in the relevant Critical Incident Review Board meetings,” the state audit said.

In response, Martinez last year publicly said the internal reviews of in-custody deaths would be made available to the public “in the near future.” To date, the Sheriff’s Department has released details of just two cases, even though 20 people died in custody last year.

In defending the Sheriff’s Department from lawsuits filed by people whose loved ones died in custody or allegedly were injured by deputies, county lawyers have sought to suppress the Critical Incident Review Board reports.

In an article in Police Chief magazine in 2020, the sheriff’s lawyer said it was a good practice to seat an attorney on the internal review board to help keep the discussions private.

“A legal advisor brings a risk/liability perspective to the discussion, as well as potentially provides the ability to protect the confidentiality of the discussion under the cloak of the attorney-client privilege,” sheriff’s counsel Robert Faigin wrote.

The Union-Tribune requested a copy of the internal reconciliation of Critical Incident Review Board cases under the California Public Records Act more than 10 days ago.

The department said Monday it needed two more weeks to respond to the request.