Issues with SDPD Revealed by La Jolla Shooting

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Analysis by Reporting San Diego

May 3, 2017 (San Diego) Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told the press within 24 hours that they had zero evidence that race had anything to do with the shooting. All victims, black, and latino, were just conveniently there, and that was that. According to multiple reporting, we know that neither the victims or the community are accepting this statement on its face. Yes, there has to be something, such as a statement, or social media posting history,  for police to classify a crime as a hate crime, however, the community is not okay with the police dismissing this off hand. It is rushed, and it feels as if the police is dismissing the mere possibility that this crime had anything to do with race. Never mind that the perpetrator shot only people of color, and let white people go. Oh, there is one person, per the police, that he shot at who was white. However, that person was missed.

So let’s step back a tad and look at this from a bigger perspective. Why would police seem to be in a rush to reach judgment? Appearances are very important, and this is what this is.

San Diego is America’s finest city, and the city has a history of trying to hide its racial tensions. The region has a history of treating minorities in ways that have created patterns of discrimination, some of them purposeful, some of them incidental. While the South had Jim Crow laws, San Diego and the West, in general, had Juan Crow laws. For example, in the 1920s children were forbidden to speak Spanish in Lemon Grove and San Diego schools. Why? Spanish was supposed to be a lesser language. There were other motives that had to do with colonizing peoples. We also have the reservations that replaced the missions in the 19th century.

Nor is this pattern of forbidding Spanish in schools entirely gone.

The neighborhoods south of the 8 were created as areas where minorities were able to more or less live. This includes areas such as Logan Heights, which are smack dab in the middle of industrial areas. The nice areas of town were white and Protestant. La Jolla, for example, had it in deeds that those properties could not be sold to Irish, Mexicans, Jews, or Blacks. These so-called covenant laws were removed from the books in the late 1960s and 70s, but there were ways for realtors to prevent the unwanted from moving in, and they were kept doing it into the 1980s.

This is the environment that San Diego Police (and police departments around the nation) have to operate in. Officers, like the rest of us, have a certain level of implicit bias. Some of the questions from videos that have emerged are the type that makes me scratch my head. They involve things like the music being played in the pool area. Yes, loud music might bother neighbors, however, asking whether it was Rap or other specific types of music can be perceived as racial bias, or implicit bias, there is a slight difference. However, the officer might be asking that to establish a motive on the part of the shooter. The perception from community members is something entirely different. So this is something that has to be taken into account.

SDPD also has other issues. It has quite a bit of conflict with minority community members, who distrust the department. Why? Over policing in areas south of the 8, and racial profiling in places like yes, La Jolla are part of this.These issues have brought the department in at times open conflict with the communities they are supposed to police.

The Politics at Play

The history just brushed over is enough to hint at the politics at play. A mass shooting is bad enough for the image of any jurisdiction. However, when you add to this race as a motivator, the politics get even more complicated. No city, especially one with the self-image of “America’s Finest City,” will deal well with a white man targeting minorities. It is not a thing that any mayor wants in his resume, or for that matter a police chief near retirement. So the politics at play matter.

Then we have to add where this happened. The University Towne Center area of town is at the heart of the city’s innovation economy. The location is prime real estate, with a well-known shopping center within a block, the University of California San Diego within 2 miles, and at the heart of many of the high-tech companies in town. The image of the city as a safe city is at risk. This is why there is a rush to put this one to bed.

We also have an issue of whitewashing and almost creating empathy for the shooter, while erasing the victims. Monique Clark, 33, was a mother of three, who died at the hospital from her injuries. She has been described by friends and family as a loving mother. In some ways as an angel. She is leaving behind three minor children. However, she has been erased from many stories.

We are including the GoFundMe account where you can go help the family bury her, and help the children during this time of family crisis. (There are other accounts, this is the one you want to support)

Clark was mentioned in passing by the Chief, while at the same time, Zimmerman told us about the troubles the shooter had. The impression was quickly developed that we should not care about the victims, though we should pray for them, which is a common pattern when minorities get shot by whites. While we should really be concerned about the shooter.

This is known as implicit bias. Whether it is conscious or not, is a good question, but it is time to point this out.

There is another point. Reporters asked her at least twice if race was at play, and her answer was that there was zero evidence. Moreover, she was asked twice about a warrant. She said they were still in the process of getting a warrant. Never mind police recruits are trained in the academy how to phone a judge to ask for a warrant. We would expect the incident commander to phone one in, within four hours. It was a chaotic situation, we get it, but the apartment was secured. Yet there was no warrant even the day after?

What all this Reveals about SDPD

If nothing else the handling of this should end the discussion whether San Diego should pursue a national search for a police chief. Zimmerman is near retirement. The answer should be yes. We need an outsider to try to deal with the well-known issues of the department. Minority communities feel that the department does not care about them, and the apparent rush to judgment conforms to those impressions.

The department also has a few other issues,. One of them is officer retention  The chief has blamed media for the perception problems that lead to officer reelection., As Voice of San Diego has uncovered, however, the Sheriff’s Office is not having those problems. SDPD does, however, and one reason is pay. This goes all the way to the Chief, who is receiving lower pay than any other Chief in the County, let alone the state for an urban chief. SDPD area of jurisdiction is the 8th largest city in the country. Yet the compensation is the lowest of all urban areas in the state. We must ask if there are other reasons, why this is happening. When pay is lower but a department has a good reputation, officers are willing to put up with some of it. We must question what is the reputation of the department within law enforcement. 

When the call came in, police did respond well within national standards, but they had to divert officers from Western Division since Northern (one of the lowest crime areas in the city) has few officers. Responding personnel have to be credited for a professional, fast response, given resources available, they neutralized the danger within 10 minutes of the incident taking place (We are adding a tad of time from the official timeline, taking into account the time it took for the first 911 call to come in, be processed and dispatched).

However, they likely did not have enough resources that were nearer since they do not have the number of officers budgeted for, and they will assign resources to areas depending on perceived or real need.

The department is maintaining attrition levels that at this time amount to 13 officers per month. Some of these officers are leaving the department even before they finish their academy, and other jurisdictions are taking them. Why? An officer leaving to the Sheriff’s department, for example, will make an average of 20 thousand more per year. The department is not competitive in pay. This means that the city is paying for background checks and other requirements that run close to $200,000. This leaves officers working with less backup, and with higher stress than they should.

It also leads to another problem. The department has an overall younger core of acting sergeants and sergeants. This leads to poor supervision of officers in the field, as well as the lack of community policing contrary to the statements from the chief. It is not us saying this. The Police Executive Research Forum found this as early as 2015:

“Throughout the organization, police patrol personnel discussed fatigue from running from call to call through- out their shift. The lack of discretionary time for on-duty officers also has had a negative impact on the SDPD’s relationships with communities across the city. At each of the public comment forums, community members expressed their concern over the lack of neighborhood- and problem-oriented policing. “I used to know the officers in my neighborhood,” said one meeting participant. “I don’t anymore, and that worries me.”

These findings are not just unique to PERF, We have heard from officers in the field  that they are tired of “chasing the radio.” They really do not have time to do anything but to run from call to call.

This has created low morale, and officers leave because they get better opportunities and better pay in other departments. SDPD was also once known as a very innovative department. It was one of the early adopters of community policing, with satellite stations and foot patrols. They did build a relationship with communities. The budget crisis that hit the city starting in 2010 hit the city hard. At one point the city considered bankruptcy.

One way the city avoided it was by reforming its pension system. Voters did vote for both Propositions A and B. This meant that there was no guarantee for future retirees to have a defined pension. This has actually hurt recruitment for all city departments, not just the police department. Moreover, the city and county remain short in their retirement funds by about $7 billion.

Channel 10 also documented a history of favoritism within the department. This history leads to some problem officers who are well connected within the department, not facing the music. While talent prefers to leave the department. Meaning the department will have issues in future years.

And there is also a documented allegation that citizens north of the 8 are treated differently by the police department. These tend to the wealthier sections of town. It is not, as the chief alleges, that officers are afraid of their YouTube moment, they are afraid of people with lawyers, and the department has a policy that backs this hands-off policy.

So the systemic issues are coming to the fore in this investigation. There is a perceived rush to judgment. One that will hurt relations between the police and the citizens it serves. It makes it clearer that the city needs to look elsewhere for the next chief of police. However, the lower pay will make it harder to recruit a chief that might take on the police union and field officers and push for critical reforms. Absent better pay and working conditions, this will be hard. Absent more personnel, officers will continue to chase the radio, which will only deepen the problems.

However, this is not just an issue of pay. The Memorandum of Understanding from 2012 that raised pay for the department has not stemmed any of these issues. So we must ask how deep does this rabbit hole run and whether we need to have more than just a search for an external police chief? Of course, none of the problems will be corrected until we do have a very serious and difficult conversation on what is the culture inside the department? The PERF report hinted at some of the problems.

The city is still losing 13 officers a month, and the academy was budgeted for forty plus recruits, they are only getting 24. How many of these recruits will leave to other departments, or fail phase training since there is also an element of maintaining the thin blue line? Yes, there are some people who leave because they find out law enforcement is not for them. But the department is obviously having internal culture problems. This mass shooting reveals some of them.

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