Planned Promotion of Police 'Promoter' Stirs Debate

Times Staff Writer

For the last several years Officer Matthew Weathersby has come up with some offbeat ideas to help boost the sagging image of the San Diego Police Department.

Weathersby filmed a Cabbage Patch doll going through the police academy in 1985 to attract young people to police work. During the holiday season last year, he arranged for officers to issue motorists "good driving" tickets that could be redeemed for free turkeys. And last week he took a life-size paper cutout of actor Dan Akroyd on a tour of the Police Department headquarters to snap photos of Joe Friday posing with officers.

Police Chief Bill Kolender is so impressed with Weathersby's creative talents that he wants to promote the officer to a new administrative post--a decision that has sparked dissent among top police officials, according to police sources.

At least four police administrators recently recommended that Kolender not hire Weathersby as community relations assistant to the chief because the officer is perceived as difficult to work with, the sources said. The administrators complained that Weathersby frequently jumps the chain of command to get his projects approved, sometimes by going directly to Kolender.

If Weathersby gets the job, it would mark the second controversial appointment of a black candidate to an administration-level position in the department. Recently, police officials announced that they plan to hire a black civilian to head the personnel division. That announcement, intended to publicize police efforts to recruit the first black member of their management team, raised questions about whether the department is aggressively searching for the most qualified applicant regardless of race. The department has selected three black finalists and is expected to name its new personnel manager this week.

Kolender's plan to promote Weathersby startled his top administrators earlier this month when the new position was posted at the Police Department while the chief was on vacation.

"This kind of hit us in the stomach," said one police administrator who asked not to be named. "It really caught several people by surprise that (Kolender) had gone that far forward with it. The four deputy chiefs recommended against it. . . . There's been a lot of grumbling about it."

One veteran officer who has considerable experience in the police public affairs unit said he is considering filing a grievance if his application is not seriously considered.

"It's ability and experience that should be considered, not strictly because a person is who they are or because someone owes someone a favor," said the officer, who asked not to be identified.

Kolender said he did not want to discuss any plans to promote Weathersby to the new position.

A Special Relationship

For someone who is an officer, the lowest rank in the department, Weathersby enjoys a special relationship with the chief of police because of his ambitious work in the area of public relations. Several officers suggested that Kolender is rewarding Weathersby with the new position because he is a relentless supporter of the chief.

After reports surfaced in the media late last year that Kolender fixed tickets for friends and used city personnel and equipment for his own benefit, Weathersby arranged for the chief to hold a press conference to announce a holiday program under which officers would stop motorists who exhibited good driving habits and hand out certificates that could be redeemed for free turkeys.

At the same time, Weathersby decided on his own to coordinate a dinner on Kolender's behalf to demonstrate the strong level of support the chief still enjoyed among his troops. Kolender canceled the gathering at the last minute because he was still under investigation by the city manager, who eventually decided to reprimand the chief.

"If you remember, at that time we were taking it in the shorts left and right," Weathersby said in an interview. "I did have a couple of hundred officers who wanted to show up because we felt frustrated. . . . Do I like (Kolender)? I love him. Do I support him? Yes, unequivocally."

Weathersby said that to suggest that his close ties to the chief would lead to a promotion "cheapens" all of his accomplishments in police work over the past decade.

'Looks Smelly'

Assistant Police Chief Bob Burgreen acknowledged that the appearance of favoritism "looks smelly," but denied that Weathersby will be promoted in exchange for being such an enthusiastic backer of Kolender.

"That is just not true," Burgreen said. "Bill Kolender would have liked to have done something like this three years ago."

Burgreen said that Kolender wants to use Weathersby's promotional talents to spread more positive news about the department. The assistant chief confirmed that the job qualifications and requirements were written with Weathersby's attributes in mind and, if Weathersby passes the civil service examination, he will be the obvious front-runner.

"He is an idea man, a project man, not the type of guy who fits in a tight bureaucratic system very well," Burgreen said of Weathersby. "I think what is annoying is Matt Weathersby is a police officer seen as operating above his level. He is getting things done that usually take a lieutenant or captain to get done.

"His contributions to the department have not been uniformly appreciated . . . he also has a tendency to jump the chain of command when he thinks he has a good idea. That rubs people wrong. He's made a few enemies."

'Not Well-Liked'

Another police official said, "Matt is very creative. He has got a million ideas and sometimes with those ideas he rubs people the wrong way. Some of his ideas are good, some of them are not so good. He comes up with them, then someone else gets saddled with the job. He is not well-liked. That is probably why there is most of the opposition to him."

Weathersby has spent the last seven years in community relations after working patrol for three years. He said he is used to hearing criticism among police officials that he does not follow the chain of command and is the chief's golden boy.

"I try not to step on somebody's toes, but by the same token if you tell me no, I'll ask why," Weathersby said. "If I can give you a reason why it will work, at least give me an opportunity. I will go to a captain (and) get a no. That's it. It's dead. If I talk to someone else, it will upset people. . . . I don't take no for an answer if it is a legitimate project."

Weathersby, who discusses police issues on his own talk show on radio station KVSD, said he has not talked with Kolender about the new community relations position. He said he has applied for the job.

"I looked at the job description and it seems to meet my talents exactly," Weathersby said. "It's what I've been doing for the last seven years."

Qualifications for Job

According to the job posting, the position of community relations assistant to the chief involves developing and implementing public relations programs and working with newspaper, radio and television reporters. Applicants must have four years' experience as a sworn police officer and at least one year in the police public affairs unit.

The position represents the second major change in the last year in the way police officials handle public relations. In the midst of the ticket-fixing scandal last year, Kolender named Cmdr. Keith Enerson as the department spokesman to handle all inquiries from the press. In the past, Kolender talked directly with reporters without having an official screen calls in advance.

Kolender decided to establish the new position after a rash of news stories that were critical of police conduct recently, including the Sagon Penn police murder case, in which eyewitnesses testified that the 25-year-old black man was the victim of a racist attack by police. Penn was acquitted on all major charges in two trials.

Enerson, who will remain police spokesman, said the community relations position is designed to "develop an interest in what the Police Department does on a positive basis. We do a lot of things and a lot of things go unnoticed. It's more like a selling job of the department."

No one has promoted the San Diego Police Department and its employees more aggressively than Weathersby.

An Enthusiastic Supporter

On the witness stand in the Penn trial, Weathersby was such an enthusiastic supporter of his former partner, Agent Donovan Jacobs, that jurors in the case said they did not believe his testimony. Numerous witnesses said that Jacobs had exhibited a history of racist conduct, including calling blacks "nigger" and "boy." But Weathersby, who is black, testified that Jacobs was an outstanding officer who had never mistreated minorities during the summer they worked together on the beach enforcement team.

In his community relations work, Weathersby said he has organized "dog and pony shows" (canine corps and horse patrol), arts and crafts fairs, and numerous exhibits featuring the hobbies and talents of officers. Last year he raised $15,000 from independent sources, including the gay community, to pay for a memorial to the department's slain officers that stands in front of the new police headquarters.

For the Super Bowl, which comes to San Diego in January, Weathersby has lined up a promotion sponsored by Wendy's restaurants featuring San Diego police officers on a series of free baseball cards.

His next project is to construct a police museum on the grounds of the old downtown headquarters across from Seaport Village.

"There are so many good things our cops do, but they always get overlooked, Weathersby said. "You like to score a victory every now and then. A victory is not, 'We shot a suspect.' A victory is a little recognition. If I sound frustrated, it's because they're not getting it and they need it."

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