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New Chief’s Challenge

The day after Bob Burgreen was confirmed by the City Council to be San Diego’s new police chief, the city recorded its 104th homicide for 1988. That number exceeds the previous record of 103 for all of 1984, the year James O. Huberty gunned down 21 people in a San Ysidro restaurant.

If this year’s rate continues through December, the city could record more than 130 homicides for 1988, a figure almost 40% higher than the average for the last three years. Police blame much of the increase on gang activity and illegal drug use and sales.

On the same day, The Times reported that San Diego police have been using an old state vagrancy law to ticket homeless people for “illegally lodging” in downtown doorways and parks or on benches, beaches and sidewalks, a questionable policy that is being challenged in court.

Gangs, drugs and the homeless are but three of the problems facing Burgreen as he replaces his former boss, Bill Kolender. Burgreen also inherits troubled relations with the minority community, some cases of questionable shootings by officers and a high number of officer deaths.

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None of these problems is new to Burgreen, who has been dealing with them for 10 years as assistant chief. But now the formidable task of establishing policies leading to solutions falls to him. This won’t be easy. The city has grown dramatically in the last decade and the crime rate even faster. San Diego now has all of the social problems of a major urban area.

In recent interviews and in his confirmation hearings, Burgreen gave a glimpse of his priorities and philosophy and a matter-of-fact assessment of the problems facing the department. His views tend to validate the City Council’s selection of him.

He showed a healthy sense of what’s doable and what’s not by a police department, recognizing that fighting crime has as much to do with solving underlying social problems as it does with making arrests.

His determination to be a “hands-on” chief and his interest in reassessing how officers are assigned make good sense and help to establish distance between himself and Kolender’s policies.

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However, Burgreen’s biggest challenge is to restore the confidence of the minority community and the community at large that all citizens are treated fairly and with respect by the police.

Burgreen’s prominent role in the department during its recent troubled history make that challenge particularly difficult--and important.

His neutral comments on the civilian review board proposals on the November ballot were a wise first step.

But restoration of confidence will take more than verbal restraint. Burgreen will be measured by how he responds when officers are involved in controversial arrests or shootings, an inevitable part of police work.

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Burgreen has set a tone of quiet, hands-on leadership. Now he needs to bridge the best of the past with the promise of the future.


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