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California State Auditor Report Number : 2015-129

King City Police Department
Strengthening Management Practices Would Help Its Efforts to Prevent Officer Misconduct and to Regain the Public’s Trust




Summary

Audit Highlights . . .

Our audit of the King City Police Department’s (Department) operations and practices highlighted the following:


Results in Brief

Located in Monterey County along U.S. Highway 101, the City of King—also known as King City (City)—is home to nearly 13,000 residents, close to 90 percent of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino. The City is governed by a five-member council that appoints a city manager as the chief advisor and professional administrator of the City. The King City Police Department (Department) is overseen by the chief of police (chief) and strives to partner with the community to protect life and property, solve neighborhood problems, and enhance the quality of life in the City. For fiscal year 2015–16, the City allocated approximately $3 million to the Department through its general fund budget, which is generally supported with revenue from taxes.

In February 2014, the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office (District Attorney) announced the arrest of six of the Department’s officers. Among those arrested were the then-acting chief and a sergeant, who were charged with crimes in connection with a towing scheme. Specifically, the District Attorney’s investigation revealed that officers had been impounding the vehicles of economically disadvantaged persons of Hispanic descent. The vehicle owners were unable to pay the related towing and storage fees, and the vehicles were sold or gifted to some of the officers. According to the District Attorney, while its team was working in the City with the Department on an unrelated investigation, it learned during interviews with the public about problems with local police officers—including the towing scheme—that eventually resulted in the arrests. Ultimately, the six officers and the then‑acting chief’s brother pleaded guilty or no contest to various charges.

In the wake of that experience, the Department has been aware of its need to rebuild the public’s confidence in its ability to serve the community. Although the Department has policies, procedures, and practices that help guide its operations, we found that it should take specific steps to improve management processes to prevent officer misconduct and noncompliance with policies and to gain greater community confidence in its operations. Specifically, even though its officer investigation and discipline processes comply with legal requirements, the Department should strengthen its current processes for receiving and addressing personnel complaints. For written complaints, the Department forwards the complaints directly to the chief, who initiates investigations. However, the Department’s policy allows supervisors to make unilateral decisions on the merits of verbal complaints and to decide whether those verbal complaints should be processed as formal investigations or as informal issues. Without a standardized process for responding to verbal complaints, the Department could review complaints haphazardly or potentially mishandle issues altogether. Additionally, the Department should inform members of the public about opportunities to voice their concerns, including the option to file complaint forms at city hall or on the Department’s website. These additions to its process would help the Department strengthen its relationship with the community.

The Department should also strengthen its management practices related to its oversight of citations. We expected the Department would have been performing regular reviews of the types of citations its officers issue, as the Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) recommends.1 However, the Department could not provide examples of any reviews it performed. The interim chief stated that he had reviewed citation data at least once in the past and that—as a result of trends he recognized—he had verbally directed officers to alter their enforcement and to focus more on community-based approaches by allowing them to issue verbal warnings for minor infractions when appropriate.2 Nevertheless, the Department should provide internal direction to its staff through written confidential memos or discussion documents, allowing the Department to hold its officers accountable if citation trends vary from management’s focus.

Since the towing scandal, and at the behest of the city council, the Department has generally complied with directives related to vehicles that it has towed, but it could improve in some areas. In March 2014, the city council authorized a resolution requiring the Department to undertake certain activities related to towing vehicles, including producing monthly reports on the tows it performs and updating its towing policy. The Department began producing monthly towing reports in May 2014 that include a notation of the legal authority for towing each vehicle, but the reports do not indicate the reasons for each tow, such as an accident or an arrest for driving under the influence. This information would provide the city council and the community with a more complete understanding about the circumstances of the tows. The Department also needs to update its towing policy to reflect the city council’s directive from March 2014 on providing training to officers about towing vehicles, requiring a sergeant’s approval to tow a vehicle, and compiling and presenting the monthly report.

We also reviewed the Department’s practices related to detecting and preventing conflicts of interest and the activities it performs as part of its outreach to the community. An academic study of conflicts of interest in policing that we reviewed states that conflicts of interest or misconduct may arise when an officer’s private interests do not coincide with his or her official duties. However, the Department does not have written criteria that identify the types of activities that are incompatible. Rather than specifying screening criteria that would apply to all officer candidates regardless of the individual serving as chief at the time, the Department’s current policy provides the chief with broad discretion in disqualifying candidates for officer positions. Adopting criteria, as the academic study suggests, may help mitigate potential inconsistencies in this process and prevent the Department from hiring officers who have engaged in incompatible activities. We also identified best practices from POST that could strengthen the Department’s engagement with the community. Although the Department conducts various activities that can be considered ways of engaging the community, it has not incorporated these activities into its formal policies. As a result, the Department risks not performing such activities or not performing them consistently. A comprehensive community engagement plan would pull together the Department’s planned activities and strategies, and it could also establish goals and timelines for the Department to achieve.

Recommendations

To provide for a more comprehensive review of complaints and to ensure that the public is aware of the Department’s willingness to receive complaints in an open manner, the Department should strengthen its process with the following steps by December 2016:

To better manage its operations related to issuing traffic citations, the Department should develop a process by March 2017 to conduct a quarterly review of its traffic citation statistics and follow up with its officers as needed to ensure a consistent enforcement strategy.

To hold its officers accountable, the Department should implement a policy by September 2016 to document the patrol directives, such as citation and enforcement strategies, that it provides to officers.

To ensure that its policies are consistent with the city council’s directives and that it can hold its officers accountable for them, the Department should immediately update its towing policy to reflect the March 2014 city council resolution.

To address community and city management concerns about its towing of vehicles, the Department should, by December 2016, provide additional information in its monthly towing report about the reason that a vehicle was stopped and the reason the Department needed to tow the vehicle.

To ensure that it uses consistent standards to evaluate whether information found in an assessment of an officer candidate’s moral character could lead to conflicts of interest, the city council should establish screening criteria for the types of activities and circumstances it considers incompatible with the official duties of an officer, such as a candidate’s connections to drug use, amount of debt, and traffic citations.

To work more effectively with community members, the Department should create a formal community engagement plan, soliciting and incorporating community feedback to ensure that the plan is tailored to community needs by December 2016.

Agency Comments

King City generally agreed with our recommendations and stated that it will incorporate their implementation into its plan.




Footnotes

1 POST is a legislatively established state commission whose responsibilities include setting training standards for law enforcement in California. Go back to text

2 Throughout this report, we use the title interim chief to refer to the individual who led the Department during the period we conducted our audit fieldwork. Go back to text


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