Citizens who want to complain about law enforcement have a far easier road in San Luis Obispo County than they did seven years ago, but a warning that people could be sued for filing a false report might scare people away and should be removed from complaint forms, according to a civil grand jury report.
Members of the San Luis Obispo County Civil Grand Jury also noted that privacy provided to law enforcement employees under California’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights makes it “often difficult to explain to a complainant why they cannot be privy to additional information” once an agency makes a decision about a complaint.
Based on current state law, the grand jury wrote, “complainants are not entitled to be notified of any disciplinary action taken against an officer.”
The report praised San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson effusively for “making great strides in improving the handling of citizen complaints and internal affairs investigations by re-establishing its Internal Affairs Unit, now known as the Professional Standards Unit.”
Grand jurors also lauded police departments throughout San Luis Obispo County for launching reforms suggested by the 2004-05 grand jury — the last time the watchdog panel looked at the handling of citizens’ complaints.
The grand jury, which serves a year-long term, makes nonbinding recommendations, but agencies investigated sometimes are required to formally report back on how they would act on the grand jury’s suggestions.
The grand jury reviewed written policies and interviewed chiefs from the seven local police departments as well as the Sheriff’s Office, which provides law enforcement for unincorporated areas outside city limits.
In its 2004-05 investigation, the grand jury found inconsistencies in the handling of police complaints among the various local law enforcement agencies.
Those disparities have generally disappeared as local law enforcement has signed on to statewide policies.
In addition to more uniform policies, local police agencies have improved their technology. All of them have cameras, recording devices and related technology.
“It is often easier to show a complainant a video of their actions ... than to try to convince them that there was no wrongdoing on the part of an officer,” the grand jury report noted.
Other information from the report:
All departments allow the complainant to take home the complaint form and return it later.
All departments maintain a master log of citizen complaints, generally kept five years.
All agencies have forms available in Spanish and access to Spanish-speaking personnel.
All departments have established a chain of command for complaints, which work their way up the chain to, ultimately, the police chief or sheriff. Investigations are carried out by senior officers and in some cases require “outside investigators to conduct an impartial investigation.”
“All police departments appear to conduct a complete and thorough investigation into each complaint,” the grand jury wrote.
Complaints eventually fall into one of four categories: unfounded; exonerated, which means “the alleged act occurred but the act was justified”; not sustained; or sustained.
The grand jury singled out the agencies that have an “admonition” on their complaint forms that “if a citizen files a false report against an officer they can be charged with a misdemeanor.”
“The admonition could be interpreted to be threatening,” the grand jury wrote, “thereby dissuading citizens from filing a complaint.”
Even though it is allowed under the California Penal Code, the grand jury wrote, federal courts have ruled that the admonition is unconstitutional “because it deprives a citizen of their right to complain about a public official.”
It warned those departments that have the admonition — Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo — to get rid of it.
Grand jurors praised Parkinson for following through with a campaign promise and restoring the internal affairs unit, which his predecessor, Pat Hedges, did not have.
Parkinson and the county Board of Supervisors hired retired Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. Jim Voge to head the unit.