Mindful of not becoming, as one member put it, a "pound-the-police board," the San Diego Police Community Relations Board tonight will hold its first public forum aimed at reviewing police policies and defusing tension between police and some San Diego residents.
Created by the City Council last year in the wake of two well-publicized shootings involving police officers, the 13-member advisory panel will hold the first of eight public meetings at 6 p.m. at the Rancho Bernardo Swim and Tennis Club, 16955 Bernardo Oaks Drive. The second session is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 31 in San Ysidro at Smythe Avenue Elementary School. Dates and locations for the remaining meetings have not been announced.
Under the ordinance that established the panel, the group is charged with determining whether police policies are "sensitive, effective and responsive to the needs of the city." Murray Galinson, a banker and chairman of the group, said its members have been determined from the outset to not be "just another blue-ribbon panel that produces another report that gathers dust."
Toward that end, the panel and its three subcommittees already have held nearly 20 meetings and have begun issuing recommendations, rather than waiting until the end of its two-year term to prepare a report. One recommendation calls for semiannual reports from Police Chief Bill Kolender to the City Council on citizen complaints about police behavior.
"If we wait a year or two, the public would become frustrated and begin asking, 'What are you doing?' " said panel member Delia Talamantez, a UC San Diego staff member who handles administrative action and conflict-of-interest matters for the school. "This produces more immediate results and, for those serving on the board, quicker feedback."
Another overriding concern among the advisory board's members is to ensure that the public meetings do not simply become a forum for vitriolic criticism of the Police Department.
"Our goal is not . . . to find the bad guy, be it in the community or the Police Department," said member Phil Hart, a data processing consultant. "That's not important. What is important is to find ways to help both the community and the department, not just point fingers."
Although the group's earlier meetings were also open to the public, the community forums are expected to give the panel a much better picture of public perceptions of the Police Department and lead to substantially more proposals designed to improve police-community relations, Galinson said.
The Community Relations Board was formed amid the public outcry over the March, 1985, fatal shooting in Southeast San Diego of Police Agent Thomas Riggs and wounding of Police Agent Donovan Jacobs and a civilian ride-along by Sagon Penn, who allegedly grabbed a gun from Jacobs' holster after scuffling with the officers. A Superior Court jury last month cleared Penn, who is black, of the most serious charges resulting from the shooting, but the district attorney's office plans to retry Penn on charges ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to attempted murder--counts on which the jury in his four-month trial deadlocked in favor of acquittal.
The shootings provoked intense emotions among police officers and the black community. While police groups stressed that San Diego has the nation's highest on-the-job police mortality rate among large cities, Southeast San Diego residents regarded the incident, in which Penn allegedly was verbally abused and roughed up by the officers, as evidence of a longstanding police brutality problem.
One week after the Penn incident, police shot and killed a 21-year-old UC San Diego student who brandished a 12-inch kitchen knife as he ran through a San Carlos neighborhood. Police defended the shooting by saying that they had been unable to subdue the man with a stun gun.
The advisory panel is far weaker than the kind of public review board initially requested by some Southeast San Diego residents, who favored a citizens committee with the power to investigate allegations of police brutality and abuse. That proposal drew strong opposition from Kolender, rank-and-file police officers and some council members.
"Discipline of officers is my responsibility, because the person who controls discipline controls the Police Department," Kolender said. "But I'm generally pleased with what I've seen of this group so far. It seems to be taking very positive actions to help the Police Department become more effective. We're all for that."
Kolender described, for example, the panel's recommendation that he deliver a semiannual report to the council's Public Services & Safety Committee on the numbers and types of citizen complaints about police behavior as "a perfectly fine idea." That proposal, since approved by City Manager Sylvester Murray, stemmed from a recommendation originally made by former Mayor Pete Wilson's crime task force that never was acted on by former City Manager Ray Blair.