Fatal Shootings Reveal that Department is Behind in Best Practices

January 5, 2006

William D. Gore, Undersheriff
San Diego County Sheriff’s Department
9621 Ridgehaven Court
San Diego, CA 92122

Dear Undersheriff Gore:

I appreciated the chance to speak with you again on January 4, 2006 about the ACLU’s ongoing concerns regarding officer-involved shootings by deputies of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. At the end of July 2005, there were three fatal shootings in a period of five days. On November 18, 2005, deputies shot and killed a person reportedly driving at them in a vehicle. Two days ago, on January 3, 2006, there was another shooting (non-fatal) by a deputy, this time of an apparently unarmed person. I am writing to follow up on my remarks concerning the timing and scope of the intended external management and policy and procedures audit.

However, let me start by commending the Department for pursuing, and the County Supervisors for funding, an external management audit. These decisions exhibit wisdom, leadership, and proactiveness commensurate with the stature of a Department and County of such size and reflect the life-or-death seriousness of the issues at hand. The objective of law enforcement to protect lives, including the lives of persons suspected of crimes, as well as the financial imperative of risk management, require major county and city law enforcement agencies to insure they are using the latest best practices in the field. As you are no doubt aware, best practices in internal and external oversight, identifying and reducing risk, complaints handling and investigation, less than lethal force, training, policies and procedures have evolved rapidly over the past decade. An effective external management audit will show the Department how it can do better, prevent injury and loss of life, and thereby reduce the devastating emotional and financial costs that accompany preventable uses of force.

Since the initial call for an external audit, the ACLU has been deeply disturbed by the slow pace for commissioning the audit. Simply put, every day that passes puts lives at risk. Every shooting that takes place during this time exists under a cloud of widespread, legitimate concern that the Department’s procedures and practices are not as good as they need to be. We urge the Department and the relevant County agencies to move more swiftly in commissioning the audit and implementing best practices.

The scope of the Request for Proposals (RFP) is the crucial first step to insuring an effective audit, improved policies and practices, and reduced risk. The ACLU is concerned by public statements suggesting the RFP may be narrowly drafted to avoid scrutiny of specific incidents and to exclude examination of policies and procedures not strictly related to use-of-force.

First, it would be wrong to limit the audit’s scope to the Department’s policies and procedures to the exclusion of the actual practices of the Department. The best policies and procedures on paper may have no bearing on how the Department implements them.

It follows that a management audit must have the mandate to scrutinize actual practices of the Department and therefore actual incidents involving Sheriff’s deputies. The Department could provide such access and still resolve or address any concerns about deputy confidentiality or due process rights.

Second, although officer-involved shootings have been quite properly the catalyst for concern, it is clear that a number of factors go into reducing preventable uses of lethal force. For example, whether and how the Department uses an Early Warning System to identify proactively officers who many need supervision, training, therapy, or other assistance—long before a shooting occurs—would serve to reduce risk but is likely to beyond a narrow RFP targeted at officer-involved shootings. As another example, the deplorable Department policy that allows Internal Affairs to refuse to investigate citizen complaints detracts from the Department’s ability to manage and reduce risk. The three fatal shootings in July 2005 suggest other relevant considerations, such as the Department’s approach to people with mental health problems or the excessive use of overtime. Just as one would not invite Jack Welch to perform a management audit of a major corporation and then not allow him past the factory floor, it would be self-sabotaging to limit too strictly the Department’s management audit to the undesired final product of fatal shootings.

We discussed the 2003 external management audit of the Portland (OR) Police Department. This report is an appropriate benchmark. It is important to note that the Portland City Auditor found the report “extraordinary” because it offered a “detailed, expert analysis of every aspect of the Portland Police Bureau’s policies and practices related to these incidents [of 31 officer-involved shootings over a three year period].” The Report’s Table of Contents—which, besides looking at policies and procedures, includes an analysis of quality of homicide investigations and reports, risk management issues revealed by a review of actual incidents, dealing with people with mental health problems, and data management—further describes the scope of an appropriately thorough review of management issues related to officer involved shootings.

The ACLU remains optimistic that the Department’s commitment to securing an external management audit will result in improvements in Department management of the use of lethal force, a decrease in preventable harm to civilians, and reduced risk and liability for the County. We urge the Department and the County to move swiftly in securing the audit and to insure that the auditors have the mandate, access, and resources necessary to conduct an effective audit.

Kevin Keenan
Executive Director
ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties

San Diego County Risk Roundtable, c/o Nathan Northup, Chief Deputy County Counsel
Harold Tuck, San Diego County Deputy County Administrator for Public Safety
Members, Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board
Coalicion de Justicia, Paz, y Dignidad
Comerciantes Latinos Asociados
Escondido Human Rights Committee
La Raza Lawyers, San Diego
Latino Policy Institute
League of United Latin American Citizens, District VII
NAACP, San Diego
NAACP, North County
Chicano Federation
Project SER
National Lawyers Guild