Thursday, August 11, 2016
[San Diego County] La Mesa Council refuses grand jury request to create citizens’ police oversight board, accepts recommendations on homelessness
August 4, 2016 (La Mesa)--Councilmember Guy McWhirter opened the La Mesa City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 26th by expressing concern for our country in the wake of recent shootings of police officers. He thanked police for their brave work helping to protect citizens—two days before two San Diego Police officers were shot, one fatally.
But the Council rejected a Grand Jury recommendation to create a police oversight board aimed at assuring that citizens’ rights are protected if officer misconduct is alleged. The Grand Jury made its recommendations to La Mesa and other local cities in a report on Citizens Oversight Boards of Police Behavior.
The May 25th report recommended that local cities take steps to improve police oversight by establishing a citizen review board or commission to investigate complaints against law enforcement officers, or consider formation of regional review boards to serve multiple jurisdictions. La Mesa currently relies on an internal police review process.
Council approved 5-0 a staff recommendation to send a letter to Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton which states,”The City of La Mesa disagrees with these recommendations and does not have immediate plans to establish an independent citizen oversight commission at this time.”Instead the city will continue to rely on internal investigations of police by the police department itself.
La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez told the City Council the Grand Jury analyzed police oversight boards and sent out surveys to seven police agencies, including La Mesa, before making recommendations on improvements. Chief Vasquez noted that the La Mesa Police take and document all citizen complaints within time limits required by the state penal code. All complaints must be reviewed by the Chief of Police. By law, he notifies the City of the conclusion of a complaint and ensures that the person can talk with him in his office. The department is not allowed to release officers’ name during this process.
Vasquez, named Chief of La Mesa's Police force last year after formerly serving with San Diego Police, stressed the importance of La Mesa Police’s involvement with citizens already. He noted that La Mesa does not have a history of failure to satisfactorily comply with citizen complaints.
Councilmember Bill Baber commented that it doesn't make sense to have citizens have full oversight, yet on the macro level, this Council is committed to having the best police force in town. He is sure they are doing the right thing.
A second Grand Jury report on homelessness made recommendations for East County cities to improve help for homeless people. Chief Vasquez spoke on the June 8th report. He indicated there are also public concerns involving the homeless.
The Grand Jury asked the City to answer specific questions and the Grand Jury made two recommendations: 1) initiate coordinated homelessness-related efforts to increase prevention, shelter and transitional housing services in East County and 2) serve on and participate in the Regional Continuum of Care Council (RCCC), which has no East County members.
Chief Vasquez said officers in La Mesa advise the homeless on resources and where to find assistance. (La Mesa does not have a homeless shelter.) The La Mesa Police Department is working on information flyers for the homeless. Police also work with the Sheriff’s new Homeless Outreach team. Vasquez said he served on the the Regional Continuum of Care Council when he represented San Diego Police. He has been attending the Regional Continuum of Care Council again recently in accordance with the Grand Jury recommendation.
La Mesa Police Department recommends for the City Council to accept the recommendations. Staff’s recommended response to the Grand Jury is to state that the recommendations are already being implemented. The La Mesa Police Department works with the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) a licensed clinician will ride with the police officers four times a week. The licensed clinician and police team even suggest resources to the homeless that are not mentally ill. You can find more information on the city’s response to the La Mesa Police Department’s efforts to help the homeless here starting on the second to last page of this document.
Councilmember Alessio mentioned that it's hard to help the mentally ill if they won't go, but pressure needs to happen in order to get things done for this particular group.
Council Member Baber is happy that Chief Vasquez is attending meetings on homelessness and offered help to attend with him. He feels like much of the burden to end homelessness should be on the County and the police should do police work. City Manager Witt agrees with Baber. This issue needs national and statewide solutions as well. Council Member Sterling was impressed by all that the officers are already doing.
Esther Bresmer with a Methodist Church in La Mesa had some concerns to share respectfully. First she commended the Council, then mentioned that one-third of homeless people do have mental illness, while two-thirds don't. The Grand Jury report on homelessness mentions that in March of 2016, Housing and Urban Development released almost $15,000,000 in homelessness-related grants to San Diego County organizations and cities. Bresmer asked if part of a $15 million grant given to La Mesa be used to help homeless people stay in a motel, since many of the homeless are trying to get a job? She commended the fact that psychiatric persons have gone with the officer during certain incidents. She also pointed out that Crisis House in El Cajon is the only place receiving money for the homeless in East County.
Mayor Arapostathis clarifies homelessness is not someone living in a vehicle or living with other family members, as Bresmer also mentioned.
There was a 5-0 of all council members approving the recommendations, as the La Mesa Police Department are already in the process of implementing resources for the well-being of the homeless.
The Council also approved a State Licensed Residential Care Facility proposed by Westmont Development. Representatives of the project spoke up about its timing. Vice Mayor Baber had a few questions about the leasing contract. Mayor Arapostathis praised it as a positive addition to La Mesa. Councilmember Sterling complimented staff because the project was originally set for 2007 before it fell through and lawsuits ensued. Regardless, the project was approved 5-0.
The Council also reviewed various reports and discussed upcoming events. There were no public comments.
Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Ruth Sterling delivered the Community Bulletin Reports and then announced she would not run for her seventh term. (The San Diego Union-Tribune reports she changed her mind after constituents urged her to run, and will be seeking reelection.) She thanked the people for their support during her term and said she has done the best she could on the council.
Finally, Mayor Arapostathis asked for thoughts on City Manager Witt retiring. Everyone complimented Witt on his wisdom and wit. He was presented an award and framed photo from the Council for his service.
August 4, 2016
East County Magazine
By Tasha Matthews