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San Diego County to consider creating Office of Equity and Racial Justice, changing law enforcement oversight


Read the full article by Charles T. Clark in the San Diego Union-Tribune here.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors next Tuesday will consider several proposals related to racial justice and law enforcement reform.

The board will vote on whether to restructure and expand the powers of the county’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, as well as consider establishing a countywide Office of Equity and Racial Justice, which would work on issues of equity and race across county departments and incorporate community feedback.

Supervisors also will weigh a proposal to accelerate the creation of non-law enforcement, “mobile crisis response teams,” which would use clinicians and other trained professionals — rather than armed law enforcement — to respond to nonviolent incidents of people in behavioral health crises.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he plans to docket the proposals Friday. They are products of conversations with community leaders, activists and advocacy organizations, he said.

“The path to a more perfect union is a long one, but this is a significant step in the right direction,” he said by phone Thursday. “The actions we are taking here send a clear and compelling message … that we are committed to reform.”

The proposals come as racial justice issues and law enforcement accountability take center stage locally and nationally, as large anti-racism protests over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd have occurred regularly in San Diego and many other cities over the past month.

The proposals also come as most San Diego County supervisors have discussed the need to explore law enforcement reforms and examine the role of police in responding to behavioral health and homelessness issues.

Fletcher’s proposal to change the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, also known as CLERB, is likely to prompt discussion from the public and the Board of Supervisors.

CLERB was established by a voter initiative in 1990 following a series of abuse allegations inside county jails. The group was tasked with providing independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, but its effectiveness has often been questioned and criticized by people in the community.

The group has summarily dismissed dozens of death investigations and has struggled with backlogs of cases, in part because it has a handful of staffers and a relatively small budget of $1 million. By comparison, the Sheriff’s Department budget for the current fiscal year was approved at $967.1 million.

Under the new proposal CLERB would see its staff and functions reassigned; it would be under the jurisdiction of the County’s Finance and General Government Group rather than the county’s Public Safety Group. The proposal also would alter the way members of the group are nominated and selected to allow more community input.

CLERB’s oversight and investigative powers would also expand under the proposal. The current requirement that a formal complaint needs to be filed before CLERB can launch non-death investigations would be removed.

Instead the group would have authority to automatically review and launch investigations any time a peace officer fires a weapon, any time the use of force results in great bodily injury and any time a peace officer uses force during a protest or other event protected by the First Amendment.

“CLERB primarily is reactive to a citizen complaint, and we want to make CLERB proactive,” Fletcher said.

The proposal focused on creating an Office of Equity and Racial Justice also is likely to gain attention, especially after a similar proposal by San Diego City Council Member Monica Montgomery was adopted at the city level.

Under the county proposal, it would establish a new office staffed by three full-time employees who would work across county departments to engage under-served communities and ensure they’re involved in setting department priorities and in the overall budget-making process.

The office also would be responsible for aiding the newly revived Human Relations Commission — reconstituted last month in response to two high-profile racist incidents in Santee. The office would also collaborate with county departments that work on restorative justice programs, among other things.

The proposal to create non-law enforcement mobile crisis response teams to function countywide is linked to county supervisors’ publicly expressed concerns about the Sheriff Department deputies handling behavioral health issues when they are not trained for that.

Under the new proposal, the county would expand a program that was initially approved as a pilot program last year, so that nonviolent people suffering from behavioral health crises are met by clinicians rather than armed law enforcement.

The proposal also would have the county work with local law enforcement to develop policies and procedures for dispatchers to redirect certain 911 calls to the mobile crisis response teams, as well as create a separate helpline for the community to report non-violent behavioral health crises.

Last year 54,000 of the 911 calls in the county were for issues involving behavioral health, mental health or a homeless person, Fletcher said.

“When those individuals are not endangering themselves or anyone else, it does not and should not be a law enforcement response,” Fletcher said. “We need clinicians who have the training, the expertise, the time, the patience, to facilitate getting these folks into recovery and on a path to wellness.”

The Board of Supervisors will discuss the proposals Tuesday during its 9 a.m. meeting. Although residents are not allowed to attend in person due to COVID restrictions, they can watch online and offer input on agenda items through the county’s website or by teleconference during the meeting.