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Public Safety

San Diego Police Chief Repudiates Arrest-Rewards Program

The San Diego Police Department headquarters is shown in this updated photo.
Milan Kovacevic
The San Diego Police Department headquarters is shown in this updated photo.

Police Chief David Nisleit on Friday strongly disavowed what he described as an unofficial, "never authorized" departmental program that rewarded officers for making narcotics arrests.

"Let me make this very clear — the San Diego Police Department does not have a quota system ... It is not something that I will tolerate," Nisleit said during a late-morning news conference called in response to community protests over the recently enacted incentive system for narcotics arrests.

Nisleit pledged to thoroughly investigate the program, which he described as an unnamed department supervisor's idea for "motivating our officers and focusing their efforts on drug enforcement within our community ... in direct response to numerous community complaints regarding this drug activity."


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The issue came to light this week when an anonymous SDPD officer divulged, in an interview with KPBS Media Partner 10News, that rewards were being offered to officers who made the most drug arrests in the department's Southern Division, which covers such border-area neighborhoods as Egger Highlands, Nestor, Ocean Crest, Otay Mesa, Palm City, San Ysidro and Tijuana River Valley.

An email that a sergeant sent to more than 90 officers detailed the system, which promised top-performing personnel the chance to work in a desirable specialized police-unit post for up to a month, the news station reported.

According to the memorandum, between March 1 and April 14, officers could earn two points for arrests of certain drug suspects, including dealers, one point for "less serious" narcotics enforcement and half a point for controlled-substance citations.

"It's completely everything that we are against as law enforcement officers," said the whistle-blower, who spoke to 10News anonymously to protect his job. "It's unethical. It's a reward system, a bounty system for officers seeking rewards for their arrests."


Nisleit — who took charge of the department two weeks ago, taking over for retiring Chief Shelley Zimmerman — insisted that the motivational concept was "never authorized, is not in line with the values" of his agency and was "not something I would approve or condone in our department."

"I will be launching an internal investigation about how and why this idea was developed," Nisleit said. "I will ensure that every officer in a leadership position understands proper protocols for vetting and approving new programs. My clear directive to all of our officers is that every person they come in contact with is treated with respect and dignity, and building relationships with each and every community is a priority."

The unnamed officer told 10News that he and others raised concerns about the new incentive program but were told "that no one will find out" and that it was "technically not illegal." The anonymous lawman did not specify who purportedly made those statements.

Cornelius Bowser of the Community Assistance Support Team, a local civic activists group, called for "an open and transparent response and investigation" into the apparently short-lived rewards-for-arrests system.

"It targets low-income neighborhoods and disproportionately affects people of color," Bowser said. "We call for complete transparency from San Diego Police Department as they investigate these matters."

Nisleit insisted during Friday's briefing at downtown SDPD headquarters that the program, while created without official approval, "was never intended to target anyone from a specific group, race or socioeconomic class."

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