By Liam Dillon.

The ongoing Justice Department review of the San Diego Police Department is supposed to be independent. City leaders have taken great pains to emphasize that they will have no control over what’s in the report. The federal government – not SDPD – is paying the group conducting the review, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research firm called the Police Executive Research Forum, to help preserve its independence.

But the head of the firm doing the review has deep ties to two former SDPD leaders, and the firm itself has faced some criticism over its close relationships with police chiefs.

Since the probe began in late March, few details have come out about what the firm is doing – save a May community meeting PERF hosted in City Heights.

SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman said that PERF officials have visited the city a couple times, including as recently as last week, gone on done ride-alongs and spoken with people inside and outside the department. The police union had an hour-long meeting with PERF and discussed recruitment and retention problems. Zimmerman said the firm is evaluating the department’s hiring practices and how it handled a dozen or so recent misconduct cases.

Zimmerman, who said she has no affiliation with PERF, said the firm’s SDPD ties have no bearing on the review.

“I’ve made it very clear that I wanted a thorough, independent critical assessment of our police department,” Zimmerman said. “I welcome any and all recommendations for us to improve any of our processes.”

Neither the Justice Department nor PERF responded to requests for comment.

The PERF-SDPD Connection

Chuck Wexler, a former official in Boston’s police department, has led PERF for more than two decades. He’s had very long relationships with former San Diego police chiefs Jerry Sanders and William Lansdowne.

In the 1990s, PERF helped Sanders develop the city’s neighborhood policing model, the nationally renowned approach that emphasized crime prevention. Sanders served as PERF’s treasurer and as a board member. Sanders’ wife, Rana Sampson, worked at PERF as a senior researcher and trainer.

When Sanders left SDPD in 1999, Wexler called him “one of the most progressive, innovative and compassionate leaders in the country.”

Wexler goes back with Lansdowne, too. Wexler began a recent PERF report on minimizing officer use of force with an anecdote about Lansdowne.

Lansdowne also served as PERF’s treasurer and taught a senior management classfor the firm. Earlier this month, Lansdowne took a job with a mobile phone recycling company, and the job announcement said he was on PERF’s board. (Neither PERF’s website nor the firm’s most recent tax form list him as a current member.)

Lansdowne retired in February, just as the SDPD misconduct scandal was heating up again. Evidence in a civil lawsuit has revealed department leadership missed numerous red flags about a sexual predator in the force and lacked key policies to prevent misconduct.

When problems first struck the department in mid-2011, Wexler had nothing but praise for Lansdowne. He tweeted links to a U-T San Diego story on Lansdowne’s plan to address officer misconduct allegations and our profile of his response to the problems.

Wexler is now responsible for reviewing the department’s actions and policies on officer misconduct.

PERF has faced some controversy in recent years, mainly over its close relationships with police chiefs. Reports in 2006 and 2007 on upticks in violent crime were criticized for being alarmist and an excuse for departments to make pitches for more money.

During the Occupy protests in 2011, PERF organized conference calls between chiefs across the country to trade strategies for dealing with the crowds. Protestors believed PERF helped coordinate the raids on their encampments and responded by hacking PERF’s website.

PERF doesn’t always side with police departments, however. The firm wrote a critical 2013 report of the U.S. Border Patrol’s use of force and its internal investigations. The report has fueled ongoing calls for change within the agency.

What PERF Does

PERF is part think tank, part conference organizer, part consultant and part headhunter. The firm’s been around for almost four decades and has a roughly $6 million budget, according to its most recent tax form. PERF gets its money from government grants, hosting conferences on various police practices and by serving as a headhunter for police departments looking for chiefs. It’s less an academic institution than a research arm of law enforcement agencies – police chiefs from North America and Europe make up its board.

PERF puts out around a half-dozen policy papers annually on topics like police body cameras and crime statistics.

“They are in many ways at the leading edge of the work in the field,” said Brian Buchner, who heads a national umbrella group for civilian oversight boards of police departments.

PERF’s 2013 paper on Justice Department interventions in local police departments praised voluntary federal reviews. Lansdowne pitched both PERF and the Justice Department when he raised the idea in February for a voluntary review of SDPD. Ultimately, both groups became involved.

It’s not without precedent for someone with a strong link to a police chief to lead a federal review. The DOJ official heading the voluntary review of the Philadelphia Police Department served under Philadelphia Chief Charles Ramsey when Ramsey was chief of Washington D.C.’s department.

Nor is it necessarily unusual that PERF isn’t talking about its report before it’s finalized. But in Philadelphia, the DOJ has been much more forthcoming about the status of its review. Here, all we’ve had is that May community meeting.

The review is supposed to wrap up before the end of the year.

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Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.