Review board to form committee to examine Sheriff's Department jail deaths

Review board to form committee to examine Sheriff’s Department jail deaths

The review board charged with investigating complaints against the San Diego Sheriff’s Department plans to create a special committee to examine claims that department officials made about a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation into deaths in county jails.

The committee idea was proposed last week at a meeting of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board — or CLERB — after a reporter challenged the veracity of a presentation by a Sheriff’s Department official at the board’s December meeting.

Paul Parker, the board’s executive officer, shared the reporter’s email with the board and placed a discussion about it on the agenda for the January meeting.

“I thought the topic was too important to just lump (the) email into all the other emails I sent to (the board),” Parker told the Union-Tribune.

Chairwoman Susan Youngflesh said the board agreed “that a deeper dive was needed” and a committee should compare what the Sheriff’s Department told the oversight panel last month to what the Union-Tribune has reported.

The committee examination would help review board members determine what steps to take next, she said.

The December presentation was made by Sgt. Aaron Meleen, the department’s liaison to the review board, in response to questions from a board member about the “Dying Behind Bars” series the Union-Tribune published in 2019.

The series was the product of a six-month investigation showing that between July 2009, when Sheriff Bill Gore was appointed, and July 2018, San Diego had the highest mortality rate among California’s six largest jail systems.

Since July 2009 at least 156 people — an average of more than one person a month — have died in San Diego jails.

The series looked at 20 years of data on jail deaths and relied on thousands of pages of court documents, autopsy reports and other records and interviews with scores of inmates, family members, current and former jail staff, plaintiffs’ lawyers, experts and advocates.

The Dying Behind Bars stories reported on lapses in medical and mental health care in San Diego jails which advocates and family members say contributed to dozens of fatalities and which spawned lawsuits that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Meleen told CLERB members that the newspaper’s investigation relied on flawed data that “appear to have been selected to fit the writers’ biased narrative.”

Meleen said incorrectly that “Dying Behind Bars” was limited to examining in-custody deaths in a handful of counties over two years. He said the findings were “skewed” and amounted to “pure speculation.”

Meleen also conflated a department study into jail suicides with the jail system’s overall death rate. And he repeated Gore’s assertion that the national standard commonly used to measure inmate mortality is not suitable for San Diego County jails.

The Union-Tribune followed the national measure, which is used by federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A statistician hired by the county used a different analysis that shows that San Diego is not an outlier. Gore said that measure is more appropriate.

Gore declined multiple interview requests ahead of the series’ publication. The Union-Tribune reached out to the Sheriff’s Department and to Meleen after his report to the review board but received no response.

Several citizens attended the CLERB’s virtual meeting Tuesday and asked board members what they planned to do in response.

“Sgt. Meleen provided a one-sided and biased explanation of the sheriff’s data,” said Robin Sayles, an activist with the community group Showing Up for Racial Justice. “We were very disappointed that the board did not take Sgt. Meleen’s responses under careful consideration.”

Andi McLeod said the subject of in-custody deaths is the most important issue confronting the review board.

“The excellent U-T series and other articles have shown that deaths have been mounting, and citizens like me are really concerned,” she said. The Sheriff’s Department “keeps saying there’s nothing really wrong … but every month another San Diego County inmate dies.”

Former state Assemblywoman Lori Saldana suggested that the board ask one of the county’s state lawmakers to request an independent review by the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee of jail deaths in San Diego County.

“San Diego County has been the subject of several Joint Legislative Audit reviews, from public health to air quality, including the sheriff’s office regarding concealed carry permits,” the three-term legislator told the Union-Tribune.

Youngflesh and some other review board members did not welcome the idea of asking state officials to examine Sheriff’s Department practices, saying the matter may best be left to local oversight.

Sue Quinn, a former investigator who also served as acting executive officer for the review board, said she found Meleen’s presentation troubling. But she said she understands the challenges of law enforcement oversight, which she described as “painstakingly difficult” work.

“It requires respectful and curious inquiry, without timidity, and must follow the evidence, recognize insufficient evidence, and raise needed questions before making determinations,” Quinn said via email.

The board also has plans to conduct on-site inspections of the county jails, an initiative that has been delayed by staff turnover and the coronavirus pandemic.

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