The civilian oversight board that monitors the San Diego Sheriff’s Department voted 6-3 Tuesday night to formally recommend that Sheriff Kelly Martinez release internal reports examining critical incidents, particularly in-custody deaths.
Paul Parker, the executive officer of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, called the special meeting two weeks after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Martinez had reversed course on a pledge she made last year.
In the run-up to the June primary election, Martinez had promised to publicly release findings from the Critical Incident Review Board, or CIRB, a group of top Sheriff’s Department officials that examines issues surrounding deaths and other serious in-custody incidents.
The recommendation echoed one made by the state auditor, which released a report last year noting that the 185 deaths in San Diego jails from 2006 to 2020 had made the county’s jail system the deadliest among California’s large county lockups.
“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.
Instead of releasing the full reports that Martinez promised, the department has posted one-page summaries — a total of five to date. Many of the summaries offer little information beyond what has already been issued via press releases.
A spokesperson said the department will not release information about deaths that happened prior to 2022.
Parker told the civilian oversight board that brief summaries were inadequate.
“Publicly releasing a ‘brief synopsis of the facts it discussed’ … will clearly result in less comprehensive and less transparent publicly accessible information,” Parker wrote in a memo detailing the policy recommendation.
Several family members of people who have died in jail spoke at the meeting, expressing frustration over not knowing exactly how their loved ones died.
“It has been almost two years since my brother passed away in custody in the San Diego jail,” said Sabrina Weddle, whose brother Saxon Rodriguez died from a fentanyl overdose in July 2021.
“We still don’t have answers from Kelly Martinez, we do not have the sheriff’s report. I’m still here fighting, still here asking for answers,” she said.
Parker noted that the records are being broadly withheld.
”The families of the folks who have died are certainly not seeing the CIRB reports,” he replied. “Nobody is getting those reports.”
Although the oversight board’s vote was not unanimous, the three board members who opposed the motion did so because they wanted more details — not because they think the Sheriff’s Department’s internal reports should remain confidential.
Prior to the Tuesday meeting, only two summaries had been published on the sheriff’s website, both of them natural-death cases, although one involves a man who contracted a fatal case of COVID-19 in jail.
A third synopsis published Tuesday concerned the death of Jerrell Lacy, whose family last year protested outside the downtown Central Jail days after the 38-year-old’s April 11 death.
Lacy’s summary is sparse, providing only a brief description of the last hours of his life.
The official cause of death was a blood clot that traveled from his leg to his lung, the release states. But the review does not mention Lacy’s history of serious mental illness or a letter he wrote to his mother four days before he died.
“I was involved in a use of force between staff and inmate when the deputy burst my head and I was sent outside to the hospital,” Lacy told his mom.
Two more death summaries were posted online Wednesday.
At the review board’s meeting Tuesday night, a Sheriff’s Department liaison defended the decision to withhold the full critical-incident reports.
“It is attorney-client privilege, and the [sheriff’s] attorney does sit in on the reviews and has quite a bit of participation in what goes on,” Sgt. Michael Tingley said.
In an article in Police Chief magazine in 2020, former San Diego Sheriff’s Department legal affairs director Robert Faigin said it was a good practice to include an attorney in the internal review board meetings 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,” Faigin wrote.
The article was provided as evidence by the plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Frankie Greer, who was seriously injured in San Diego’s Central jail in 2018.
Greer’s attorneys have argued that the internal reviews will establish a pattern of medical neglect within San Diego jails and that simply putting an attorney in the room does not mean the reviews are protected.
Magistrate Judge Daniel Butcher agreed.
“The county offers no evidence establishing the specific CIRB investigations at issue here were conducted primarily to aid in pending or anticipated litigation,” he wrote in an October ruling.
“The county, therefore, has not carried its burden of demonstrating the CIRB documents plaintiff seeks are protected work product,” Butcher added.
Despite the ruling last fall, the documents remain under seal and not visible to the public, pending a hearing next month.
Recommendations from the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board are strictly advisory. The sheriff is free to reject the suggestions.