Perhaps the ultimate measure of San Diego City Manager John Lockwood's plan to introduce a modicum of civilian review of police misconduct investigations will be whether it serves as a first step toward more meaningful community involvement or simply relieves the pressure to reform the existing system.
Lockwood's plan to have "consultants" review investigations already completed by the Police Department is flawed by the pool from which the consultants will be drawn, by the person selecting them, and by the level of authority they will be given.
By limiting service on the review panels to those who formerly served as judges, grand jurors or city civil service commissioners, Lockwood implies that reviewing complaints against police officers is more difficult than running San Diego's port and airport, planning for the future growth of the city and doing all the work of the various city boards and commissions that are made up of people drawn from all walks of life.
By extension, he implies that, while a police officer charged with murder is tried by a jury of citizens chosen almost at random, only someone with special experience is qualified to review the investigation of a police officer accused of using abusive language to a motorist. It makes no sense.
The credibility of the review panels will also be undermined by the fact that the police chief will name them. Judges, of course, have public records that are usually well known to the police. It will be interesting to see which ones Kolender selects.
As several minority leaders have pointed out, the woods around here are not exactly full of retired black or Latino judges, and even finding enough minority former grand jurors or civil service commissioners willing to serve may be difficult.
But, as troubling as any of this is the level of participation Lockwood has given the consultants. Working in teams of two or three, they will review a sampling of police misconduct investigations and issue at least two reports a year evaluating the work of the Internal Affairs Unit. They will not be allowed to interview officers or other witnesses, and they will have no role in recommending the disposition of complaints.
In interviews about the plan, Lockwood indicated that he was not concerned with satisfying critics of the Police Department by showing that misconduct investigations are conducted in a thorough and fair manner. Rather, he only wanted to please those for whom issues of police-community relations are not a major topic of concern. He showed how little ambition he has for the plan by saying: "I just felt some outside look would be reassuring to some people who might have some doubts."
What can be said in favor of Lockwood's plan is that, for the first time, people outside the Police Department will be allowed a close-up, though sanitized, look at how the department investigates its own. While we doubt that will have much impact on police behavior or community attitudes about police officers, it may provide enough insight into the process to persuade the City Council to take the next step and move toward changing the City Charter to provide for more realistic civilian review.