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Senate passes bills on developmental center abuse cases

Monica Lam/California Watch The Office of Protective Services is an in-house police force at California's developmental centers.

Two bills intended to improve police investigations into patient abuse and unexplained injuries at California’s institutions for the developmentally disabled passed the state Senate today.

The legislation, SB 1051 and SB 1522, would require the state to notify outside law enforcement agencies and disability rights groups when it uncovers allegations of violent crimes against patients. Lawmakers and patient advocates have criticized the state's in-house police force, called the Office of Protective Services, for what they deem unacceptably poor criminal investigations.

In a series of stories in February, California Watch reported that detectives and patrol officers at the board-and-care institutions routinely fail to conduct basic police work, even when patients die under mysterious circumstances. The facilities have documented hundreds of cases of abuse and unexplained injuries, almost none of which have led to arrests. 

The state Department of Developmental Services runs the force. The state operates five developmental centers that house roughly 1,800 patients with cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sonoma and Tulare counties. California is budgeted to spend $577 million on the patients and facilities this fiscal year, or about $320,000 per patient.

Senators passed the bills unanimously, without discussion. They are designated as urgent and would take effect immediately if approved by the state Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Under SB 1051, developmental center officials would be required to notify Disability Rights California, a protection and advocacy organization, of unexpected or suspicious deaths, sex abuse allegations and any report made to law enforcement. Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, and Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Riverside, sponsored the bill.

The legislation also would create minimum qualifications for the Office of Protective Services’ police chief, requiring “extensive” experience overseeing criminal investigations.

The current chief, Corey Smith, spent most of his career as a firefighter. Smith hadn’t worked on criminal investigations until 2006, when the department made him police commander at the Sonoma Developmental Center, responsible for overseeing hundreds of cases each year.

SB 1522, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would mandate that city or county police agencies receive notice of cases of sexual assault, assault with a deadly weapon or force, and unexplained injuries involving broken bones or patients’ genitals.

The Office of Protective Services typically is the only law enforcement agency to investigate alleged crimes at the centers, even when patients died under suspicious circumstances.

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