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‘I’ve Got Fences to Mend’ : Chief Kolender Emerges from Between a ‘Rock and a Hard Spot’

Times Staff Writer

A former police community relations officer who has worked nearly three decades to build support among San Diego’s political, business and civic leaders, Bill Kolender is arguably the city’s most popular public figure.

But as he begins his 12th year as police chief, Kolender finds himself for the first time the target of sustained, widespread criticism from San Diego blacks and Latinos. Several minority groups and individuals, frustrated by what they see as the Police Department’s unwillingness to respond to persistent reports of police aggression, have demanded that Kolender resign.

“I have no confidence in Kolender,” said Ernie McCray, the black principal of Fletcher Elementary School in Linda Vista. “Maybe he doesn’t feel it, but there is a lot of resentment toward him and his popularity.”

Many of the attacks on Kolender stem from the recent Sagon Penn police murder trial, which has elicited powerful emotions throughout the city. Penn has claimed he acted in self-defense against a racist police attack when he shot and killed a police officer on March 31, 1985.

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McCray, 48, said he was so incensed by Kolender’s remarks challenging the innocent verdicts in the Penn case that he wrote in a black newspaper that Kolender must go if the black community and police are to resolve their differences.

More recently, Kolender has come under criticism from Latinos because of his department’s policy toward undocumented aliens.

While strained relations between minorities and police are commonplace in many U.S. cities, they represent a new crisis in San Diego, where racial hostilities have been minimal. In addition, Kolender has enjoyed an outstanding reputation among nearly everyone as an honest, open-minded police administrator. His 1,400-member department has been routinely praised as one of the most efficient and responsive police organizations in the country.

Kolender, who earns $76,800 annually, continues to receive strong backing from City Manager Sylvester Murray, who is black, and the City Council.

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“I think you have to acknowledge that Chief Kolender still has a tremendous amount of respect in San Diego as a good, innovative police chief, even though we are going through this period right now,” said Councilman Ed Struiksma, a former San Diego police officer.

Struiksma and other council members say Kolender has been forced into the delicate position of having to choose between supporting his officers in the wake of the traumatic Penn shootings and acknowledging some legitimate complaints by minority leaders.

This conflict was illustrated by Kolender’s reluctance to acknowledge any police problems in the city’s minority neighborhoods. He didn’t concede any problem until after an Aug. 7 community meeting where 200 angry residents turned out to condemn the Police Department.

Even though he now says he recognizes police tensions with minorities, Kolender at times still tends to minimize the magnitude of the problem.

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“I think those fires are out,” Kolender said in an interview last week. “I think it’s just dimmed. I think as we continue to communicate, as long as I’m responsive to the community and support meaningful change, that will create a better relationship. I don’t see any problem.”

City Manager Murray said that if Kolender has erred, it has been his failure to communicate his genuine sensitivity to the needs of all citizens. He said Kolender has not voiced his “value system” loudly enough to the hundreds of new officers recently hired and dozens of new sergeants and lieutenants recently promoted.

“I think that the chief of police is an individual who is sincerely honest and community oriented,” Murray said. “And it means that we just have to make certain that all of the troops recognize this and try to mimic this. I think they will mimic it if they know what it is. Until recently, I don’t think he has been stating that value system publicly . . . “

Kolender’s reaction: “That’s probably true and I’m working on it.”

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He added, “Look, nobody pleases everybody. I’ve been chief 11 years. I do my best to be progressive and to motivate and to hold this department accountable . . . Yes, I’ve taken some stands, and when you do that, whatever your occupation, eventually there are people who don’t like your views . . .

“I think overall the relationship between the Police Department and the community is very good, and me, too. Me personally.”

Kolender, 51, has served longer than any major-city police chief in the country. He takes pride in the performance of his department, which has not suffered a major scandal under him. He became the department’s first Jewish officer when he joined in 1956 and soon rose through the ranks, primarily as a “community relations officer.” In that role, he was the Police Department’s point man for minorities during the 1960s and served as the police liaison with City Hall.

Today, Kolender says he is determined to patch up relations with the city’s minority community.

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“First off, when a black person shoots a white officer, or vice versa, there’s a built-in conflict, and we’ve recognized this from day one,” Kolender said. “As I talk to the officers in the Southeast area . . . I find they feel that the negative response to the Police Department as a whole has been very minimal. They feel they still have an excellent working relationship with the vast majority of the black community we call Southeast.

“But because of this conflict, and because of the possibility of polarizing people, whether they be police officers or citizens, we want to do something.”

Many blacks said they became outraged in June when Kolender expressed shock at the innocent verdicts in the Penn case and said he hoped that Penn would be tried again on several undecided charges.

“I’m very disappointed,” Kolender said at the time. “This is going to leave my officers angry and sad . . . “

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In July, Kolender told The Times, “We really don’t feel the officers were wrong. We have problems with some of the evidence presented . . . The black friends I’ve had for many years, they understand it is an isolated incident.”

Penn was found innocent of murder in the slaying of Agent Thomas Riggs and attempted murder in the shooting of Agent Donovan Jacobs. Jurors also voted overwhelmingly in favor of acquitting Penn in the attempted murder of Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a civilian who was a ride-along in Riggs’ patrol car.

According to courtroom testimony, Jacobs mistook Penn for a gang member, beat him repeatedly with night sticks and taunted him with racial slurs. Several defense witnesses said Jacobs warned Penn, “You think you’re bad, nigger . . . I’m going to beat your black ass.”

Jacobs denied using racial epithets and the Penn trial turned into a galvanizing force for many minorities, in part because the prosecutor sought to discredit black witnesses who testified that they saw Jacobs attack Penn and call him “nigger.” Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Carpenter suggested that many blacks who witnessed the shootings were “hostile” to police and never tried to assist the fallen officers.

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McCray said that nothing in his lifetime has affected him as emotionally as the Penn case.

“That’s from being a black male and having been harassed on occasion by police (for) being a black male,” said McCray, a San Diego resident for the past 24 years. “I thought it was really somewhat unprecedented that Sagon Penn was set free. It let me know justice can prevail . . .

“Now here is the chief of police and he had problems with that . . . I think he disregarded what a lot of the case dealt with (and) the statements from black witnesses. What I heard through all his anger and sadness was that he didn’t believe those people. Somehow they didn’t have credibility. They must have gotten together and said, ‘Let’s free Sagon Penn and tell a lot of lies.’ ”

To many blacks like McCray, the Penn case represented more than a tragedy for the families of the victims. They believe that what happened to Penn is indicative of what takes place on a regular basis when police officers confront blacks in Southeast San Diego.

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City officials point out that the Penn case placed Kolender in an untenable position because Riggs was the ninth San Diego officer slain in the line of duty in the past decade, giving the city the nation’s highest per capita police mortality rate.

“I suspect that Bill is between a rock and a hard spot, in that if he were to make a statement along the lines that (black leaders) would like to hear, he could be substantially undercutting the morale of his own department,” Struiksma said. “I don’t suspect he wants to do that. But I’ve never perceived him as an individual who runs away from the truth.”

Black leaders say that, while they understand Kolender must stand by his officers, they expect him to admit when his officers are wrong, especially if they attack an innocent black man.

“I think that he should call it like it is, even if he may have to be cautious,” McCray said. “He has the social graces and skills to do it smoothly.”

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At the Aug. 7 community meeting in Encanto--the black neighborhood where the Penn shootings took place--about three dozen people told a special citizens advisory panel that police sometimes treat residents as criminals, even when they are reporting crimes. One speaker declared that the community and police were “at war,” while another said police relations were “about on a par with Johannesburg.”

Several offered a simple solution--Kolender should be fired.

Kathy Rollins, executive director of the Black Federation of San Diego, said she was not surprised to hear people calling for Kolender’s resignation, though her organization has not taken that step.

“People in this community have had problems for a long time and they in fact see the Sagon Penn incident as being part of the problem,” Rollins said. “They do not see it as an isolated incident.”

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The black community is by no means united in its opposition to Kolender, who has retained support among many influential blacks.

“I think that Bill Kolender . . . has done an excellent job in sensitizing his people and his department in trying to get them to relate to every segment of this community,” said the Rev. George Walker Smith, a black leader for the past three decades. “The Penn case is passe as far as I’m concerned. It’s not an indictment on the Police Department . . . The black community and the white community want to put that behind us.”

But the Rev. Robert Ard, a black minister and longtime Kolender supporter who is running for the 79th Assembly District, said during a recent interview that Kolender is underplaying the significance of the Penn trial.

“After this incident, we’re still hearing that (police abuse) is isolated,” Ard said. “It is really symptomatic . . . I have been trying for a long period of time to get our chief to understand that yes, we do have a problem. Until such time we admit we have a problem, these things are going to continue.”

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Kolender recently drew criticism from another minority community when he sent a memo to his officers reminding them to record for statistical purposes any suspects who may be undocumented aliens. The July 28 memo said proof or confirmation is not required for officers to check a box marked “Undocumented Person” on arrest reports.

The memo opened the door for Latinos to denounce Kolender, who had already alienated many minorities by blaming undocumented residents for the large share of recent increases in San Diego’s crime rate. Latino leaders began voicing long-standing complaints over police procedures that required officers to detain illegal aliens who were contacted but not arrested and turn them over to Border Patrol agents.

The decades-long practice drew protests from civil rights and Latino leaders, who said that judging a person’s citizenship is not the job of the police. They said the practice could fuel ill will and a “vendetta” against Latinos.

The Committee on Chicano Rights, an independent group of outspoken Latinos, asked Murray and Mayor Maureen O’Connor to dismiss Kolender over the memo.

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Kolender quickly reevaluated the policy and halted the police practice of identifying undocumented aliens and holding them for the Border Patrol. Kolender said he acted because he was “concerned about the ‘appearance’ of treating people differently who are of Hispanic descent.”

Herman Baca, chairman of the Chicano committee, said, “Kolender is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is the way he projects himself in terms of his policies toward the Chicano community . . . This glossing over by Kolender through public relations hoopla is simply not going to resolve practices taking place out in the communities.”

In an interview last week, Kolender assailed Baca.

“Baca is a nobody,” Kolender said. “No one supports him. He don’t have no group. He is not interested in anything but himself, in my judgment. I think he has no credibility at all.”

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Responded Baca: “The halo is not as bright as it used to be. It’s unfortunate . . . I don’t think Herman Baca is the issue. I think the issue is Bill Kolender and the way he is addressing his job. I don’t think Kolender is in control of his department.”

Kolender said he regularly consults with Latinos he respects, such as his deputy chief, Manuel Guaderrama, city planning commissioner Ralph Pesqueira, businessmen Gil and Sal Contreras and the Chicano Federation, which has not called for his resignation.

"(Kolender) may have a lot of sensitivity,” said Irma Castro, executive director of the Chicano Federation. “We’re not sure that has been translated to his staff. Our everyday contact is not with the captain or the chief. It is usually with patrolmen, and at that level we’re hearing a lot of dissatisfaction.”

Kolender contends he is making progress toward improving police-community relations in San Diego’s minority communities.

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Today, Kolender carefully chooses his words when asked about the Penn case, and declines to discuss his personal feelings about a possible second trial.

“I still meet with the black community,” Kolender said last week. “We are still friends. Yes, we had a difference of opinion when it comes to (the Penn) case. I’m hopeful that it doesn’t have a negative effect on the department as a whole or me personally, and I’m going to work to maintain that positive relationship with the black community. I think it’s very important . . .

“Yes, I’ve got some fences to mend. I’m going to do it.”

Kolender said he believes that police-community tensions in Southeast San Diego stem from high crime rates in minority areas and a “built-in resentment” toward police by people suspected of crimes.

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He listed a number of revisions that should benefit police-community relations, including the replacement of human relations courses at the Police Academy with cultural awareness training. Kolender said he hopes the new training will educate officers about special conditions and problems that exist in the minority community.

“It’s not the panacea, but you must give the officers the knowledge to work effectively,” he said.

Kolender said he wants to hire more black officers on the department. He also said he has instructed his commanders that he wants his best officers assigned to the Southeastern station and others who exhibit poor attitudes transferred out. So far this year, five officers in Southeast San Diego have been reassigned to other areas of the city because they were “burned out,” said Capt. Dave Johnson.

Kolender said the added stress in the past year has not caused him to look for another job. He has twice turned down opportunities to run for mayor and rejected an offer in 1981 to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Even though he became eligible to retire last year, Kolender does not plan on leaving unless “something overwhelming takes place or comes along,” he said.

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“I like the relationship I feel with the community as a whole. People throughout the city are very nice to me. I feel very comfortable. There’s a lot of positive things that outweigh some of the negative things we’re talking about.”


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