Officer Misconduct Hurts Image Of SDPD
Friday, May 13, 2011
The San Diego Police Department is reeling from a wave of misconduct charges involving officers. It’s something police departments across the nation are dealing with.
SAN DIEGO The incidents began in March when a San Diego police officer with 18 years on the force was accused of sexually assaulting five women. The misconduct cases spiraled, with accusations ranging from drunk driving to hit-and-runs, stalking, to excessive force, domestic violence and sexual assault.
Within three months, nine cops faced misconduct charges. The rash of cases seemed to culminate in a public act of contrition on Tuesday by San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne.
"I want to personally apologize to every citizen of the city of San Diego, as this behavior is not expected nor condoned by me or anyone in this San Diego Police Department," he said.
Lansdowne announced a seven-step plan meant to address and, hopefully, prevent further misconduct cases. But that proved no deterrent.
Barely a day after the chief’s pledge, news broke that yet another officer, Daniel Dana, had been arrested. The accusation? Kidnapping and raping a woman while on duty. The police department quickly investigated; Dana was soon jailed and off the force.
But what’s going on? Is it financial stress? Too much work and not enough officers to cover it? A response to the demonization of city employees?
Norm Stamper was with the San Diego Police Department for 28 years and was second in command when he left in 1994 to become Seattle’s police chief. He said those questions really don't matter. "It’s an explanation, but it’s not an excuse."
Stamper said departments across the nation are seeing an increase in police-misconduct cases. Stamper links that to what he calls the militarization of police forces after 9/11. He said officers and the communities they serve have developed an “us-versus-them” attitude toward one another, a fact not helped by the decline of community policing.
"In my mind, community policing is police officers engaged in authentic partnership with the citizens that they serve," Stamper said. "Clearly it does mean getting out of your car, it means contacting citizens who are experiencing problems, and working with them jointly to identify those problems and to analyze them and solve them together."
The SDPD has cut some of its more community friendly units, like its equestrian teams. But as budget cuts have been made, the department has kept a focus on its patrol division to make sure San Diego’s crime rates stay low. Chief Lansdowne now says his command staff has let him know that intense focus may have hurt the department in other areas.
"They were also very clear that I need to spend more time with the officers themselves and (on) their individual relationship with the department, with the command staff and their conduct," he said. "And that’s exactly what I intend to do."
The Chief may have his work cut out for him. San Diego’s Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices tracks complaints it receives about officers through the fiscal year. The Board projects it will have received between 60 and 70 misconduct complaints by the end of this June, when the fiscal year ends. That’s compared to 40 complaints received in fiscal year 2008 and 46 in 2009. Review Board Executive Director Danell Scarborough said the allegations against officers have predominantly been excessive use of force and discrimination. Not all police complaints go through the Review Board, some are made directly to the SDPD. The Police Department did not its own have prepared statistics on misconduct complaints available in time for this report.
City officials appear to be sticking by the police chief. City Council President Tony Young said he backs Lansdowne.
"I do appreciate and support the chief's response. He came up with a plan to address these issues and I have a lot of confidence that he will actually be successful in doing this," Young said.
Mayor Jerry Sanders supports Lansdowne as well. Sanders, a former SDPD chief himself, said he has no tolerance for officers who fail to obey the laws they are sworn to uphold. Councilwoman Marti Emerald, chair of the city's public safety committee, said she'll hold a hearing on the issue in the future to make sure police officers are getting all the support they need. She said there's no excuse for criminal behavior, but she wants to make sure officers have a safety net. Emerald said she also supports Lansdowne, especially because of his response to the situation.
And Lansdowne said he believes the department will bounce back.
"We have a long history of exemplary conduct in the San Diego Police Department. If there’s an issue or a problem, give us a call," he said. "The best safeguard we have against officer misconduct are the calls we receive every day from the community and I encourage people to call."
But it may not be as easy as apologizing. Stamper said these incidents could have a lasting effect.
"Individuals within the San Diego Police Department, I can guarantee you, are very proud of that department. But this hurts. It cuts deep. And it certainly does effect the reputation of the agency."
It’s an issue the SDPD will have to deal with as it works to regain the trust of the community it’s sworn to protect.