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San Diego Police: ‘We Do Our Very Best To Reach Everyone’

Evening Edition

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Assistant Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said she and her colleagues attend at least 140 community meetings a month. That's more than four town council meetings, planning committee meetings, neighborhood watch meetings or safe school meetings a day and nearly 1,700 a year.

And Zimmerman said that doesn't include when officers attend parades, block parties, street fairs, cultural festivals, fishing derbies, blood drives …

"We do our very best to reach everyone, and if there's some group that would like us to go and we're not reaching, let us know," Zimmerman said. "We'll be happy to open up that dialogue, because that is critically important to us."

Critically important, Zimmerman said, because it allows the department to solicit feedback from the community. But one message seems to have been lost between all of those meetings: Some young men of color believe San Diego police officers engage in racial profiling.

Police Chief William Lansdowne said he stopped enforcing a department policy to collect racial data at traffic stops because he didn't believe it was a concern among the community.

But residents, the head of the region's NAACP, mayoral candidate and City Councilman David Alvarez and a detective sergeant on the police force all say it's an issue.

So where was the message lost? Most of the young residents we spoke with aren't going to town council meetings.

Meeting People Where They Are

San Diego police officers Dionisio Medina and Nick Tamagni say hello to Hani Ilaian, the owner of Mid-East Market on El Cajon Boulevard.

"What's up, Mr. Hani," Dionisio Medina shouts as he walks into Mid-East Market on El Cajon Boulevard.

The tone of his greeting suggests he and shop owner Hani Ilaian are peers. Maybe they hang out on the weekends. But Ilaian is much older than the young police officer. He came to City Heights from Palestine 25 years ago. He and Medina met about a week ago.

Medina and his partner, Nick Tamagni, started patrolling City Heights by foot this month. It's an effort devised by Mid-City Capt. Todd Jarvis to help the police department meet residents where they already are. Medina and Tamagni spend about 80 percent of their day, four days a week, walking.

Their division has a strong tradition of neighborhood outreach. It has a special station for refugees staffed by civilian police service officers who act as liaisons between the department and the public and often serve as interpreters. And it's home to STAR/PAL, a police-run nonprofit that focuses on youth empowerment citywide. Many of its programs work to build trust between law enforcement and youth, especially those who have experienced the criminal justice system themselves or through their parents.

But those programs require residents to walk through police department doors. Now Medina and Tamagni are the ones crossing the threshold.

"Some people are really busy. These businesses are open really early and they close really late. Sometimes it's harder for them to stop that to go to a meeting," Medina said. "At least when we're here, they can tell us if there's something we can pass up or help them out with."

Ilaian said he was surprised when Medina and Tamagni first walked into his market.

"It was a shock for us — after 25 years we get to know the name of an officer in San Diego," Ilaian said. "They don't usually like to talk to anybody. They usually park on the corner, block the business and you cannot interfere with them for little things."

But Ilaian said the effort has changed his mind about the San Diego Police Department.

"They made us feel more secured, more friends with the city. We get to know the city when before, nobody knows anybody," Ilaian said. "What they are doing, it's beautiful really."

Changing 'The DNA of Us'

But the walking team is an anomaly in a department that's still regaining financial ground after a round of budget cuts in 2010. That year, the department lost 49 of its police service officers, leaving only those who work with refugees in Mid-City.

Zimmerman said the reality is the department is still primarily focused on responding to calls in a timely matter. She said the loudest message voiced at the meetings she attends is concern about seeing fewer patrol cars on the street.

The city agreed in November to spend $66 million on the department over the next five years. Most of the money will be used to play catch-up, replacing old equipment and restoring staffing levels (including the police service officer positions).

Talk of expanding programs like Mid-City's walking team is further off. But Juvenile Services Sgt. Jeffrey Pace, who works at STAR/PAL in City Heights, said there's something officers can do now to improve community perceptions of police – and it's free.

He recalled when a young man accused him of racial profiling. Pace stopped him because he matched a suspect's description.

"I turned my radio up and asked dispatch to repeat the suspect description and I let him hear," Pace said. "I asked him, 'Who does that look like?' He said, 'It looks like me.' And I said, 'Yeah, it looks like that's why I pulled you over.'"

The man was innocent. Pace wrote him a hall pass of sorts, knowing he had a good chance of being stopped by police again that day.

Pace said that kind of transparency about the process can begin to address perceptions in the community about racial profiling.

"We're not going to get that 100 percent, even when we're operating in the scope of our duties," Pace said. "I don't think we'll ever beat this, but as we get more and more officers promoted and this kind of concept is in the DNA of us, we're going to reduce that perception that we're racially profiling."

This story is part of an ongoing investigation by KPBS and Voice of San Diego.

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