Less-Traveled Path Leads to Success for San Diego Police


A quarter-century or so ago, California’s two largest cities faced the same tough question: How can you police a sprawling, growing, changing city?

Los Angeles, after some stabs at change, decided to stick with the aggressive, autonomous, enforcement-oriented strategy devised by its legendary leaders of previous decades.

San Diego, suffering at the time from allegations of racism, brutality and corruption, decided to drop much of its paramilitary attitude, to involve the public in setting priorities, and to put a premium on getting along with politicians and the press.

To paraphrase the poet, taking that less-traveled road has seemingly made all the difference for San Diego.


The Los Angeles department is mired in scandal and political turmoil and struggling with a demoralized work force and a hostile public.

But San Diego police enjoy substantial public support, close ties with City Hall, and a growing reputation among academics and other police departments for innovative, effective and scandal-free police work.

Without intending to, San Diego has usurped the position of prestige once enjoyed by the LAPD as a place where other police departments come to learn about employing new tactics and meeting new challenges.

“San Diego PD has always thought of the LAPD as our big brother,” said San Diego Assistant Chief John Welter. “A little brother can learn from watching his big brother make mistakes. We’ve learned a lot from LAPD in recent years.”


For all of the city’s pride in its police, not even the most boosterish San Diego official will claim the department is perfect.

In the past year, police have fatally shot a former pro football player and a mentally disturbed transient. Although the district attorney cleared the officers of wrongdoing, both families are suing and controversy lingers. The ACLU was unhappy with the composition of a task force formed by police on the use of deadly force.

And in July, a veteran cop was indicted for allegedly stealing information from police computers to help a marijuana smuggling ring. Another was indicted for tipping her fellow officer that his phone was tapped.

Moreover, LAPD leaders say it is unfair to compare the San Diego and Los Angeles departments because of sheer size. Los Angeles has 9,700 officers--compared with 2,000 in San Diego--serving a city with nearly three times as many people.

“San Diego is a big city, but it’s not huge like we are,” said LAPD spokesman Sgt. John Pasquariello. “It takes much longer for this organization to get going to change things, but that doesn’t mean our aim isn’t to be the most efficient, interactive police department in the United States.”

Not only is Los Angeles a much larger and more racially diverse city, it also suffers to a greater degree from social and economic factors that are seen as contributing to unrest and crime: a larger percentage of families living in poverty, lower median incomes, higher unemployment and a greater disparity in the income levels of whites and non-whites.

Historically, Los Angeles has also had a higher level of racial animosity and a more ingrained drug problem and street gang culture.

“The social cleavages are just so much bigger in Los Angeles than San Diego,” said Steve Erie, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. “The challenges in San Diego are a lot smaller, which is why San Diego has been able to get along with so few cops.”


Still, Erie and others said that numbers alone do not explain why the two departments are viewed so differently both by their citizenry and their professional colleagues.

“San Diego stumbled onto community-oriented policing, stuck with it, and it worked,” Erie said. “Los Angeles tried community policing but then went back to the invading-army approach.”

Crime Rate Fell in Both Cities

Though both cities have seen dramatic declines in crime during the 1990s, San Diego’s crime rate--though lower than L.A.'s to begin with--dropped more.

Perhaps even more telling is that monetary judgments against the city due to excessive force by officers are virtually nil. Despite occasional controversies, disputes about police conduct are not a daily topic in San Diego as they are in Los Angeles.

This kind of success has attracted attention in the police profession.

“It’s fairly universally recognized that San Diego is one of the most innovative departments in the country, particularly for a large department,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “What I find extraordinary about the San Diego PD is its willingness to engage in self-evaluation and to be open to external review.”

The Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum holds its annual community-oriented policing convention each year in San Diego. “San Diego has been willing to challenge the old ways of doing things,” said Chuck Wexler, the group’s executive director.


While other big-city departments have had success with different strategies--notably New York with its hyper-aggressive enforcement style under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani--San Diego officials believe that community policing fits both the city and the department.

For one thing, San Diego has only 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents, the lowest ratio of any major U.S. city, compared with 5.3 in New York and 2.7 in Los Angeles. San Diego does not have the option of “swarming” large numbers of officers into neighborhoods to make mass arrests, a strategy used in New York and other cities.

More than any department in the country, San Diego depends not just on the goodwill of the public but on civilian volunteers who do chores that in many departments are the responsibility of sworn officers. The department uses more than 1,100 volunteers.

“We are not a ‘thin blue line’ that stands outside the community,” said Welter. “In San Diego, we think of ourselves as part of the community.”

The difference is reflected internally as well. While Los Angeles officers earlier this summer were threatening to picket at the Democratic National Convention to air their grievances with management, San Diego officers quietly renewed their multiyear contract.

“The San Diego Police Department is a happy department, where people have tremendous camaraderie,” said Los Angeles cop-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh, who lives in San Diego. “The LAPD is extremely unhappy, demoralized, angry and suspicious.”

A Change at the Top

Perhaps the most important day in the history of the San Diego Police Department was Feb. 13, 1976, when Deputy Chief William Kolender was named to replace Chief Ray Hoobler.

Hoobler was a hard-nosed street cop who had achieved near-legendary status as a relentless homicide detective and a hard-charging captain but whose tenure as chief was marred by scandal and an autocratic style.

Kolender was a specialist in community relations, as comfortable in a tuxedo as a cop’s uniform, politically savvy and a close friend of then-Mayor Pete Wilson. He was also a believer in the emerging theory that making arrests and fighting crime are two different things and that crime can only be reduced by working more closely with members of the public.

Like LAPD’s William H. Parker a generation earlier, Kolender molded his department in a lasting way, although in a manner that no doubt would have made Parker cringe.

In his first day as chief, Kolender issued two directives. One allowed officers to decide for themselves whether to wear long or short-sleeved shirts, a decision that previously could only be made by the chief.

The other was a threat to fire any commander who tolerated the use of racial or ethnic slurs by officers.

Although there were fits and starts, some failures and some budget battles, Kolender stuck to his view that officers should get out of their cars, talk to citizens, attend community meetings and listen to what the public thinks police should be doing.

Each of Kolender’s three successors--Bob Burgreen in 1988, Jerry Sanders in 1993 and Dave Bejarano in 1999--has followed Kolender’s founding philosophy but still managed to put his own stamp on the department.

Sanders expanded the neighborhood policing concept to include not just special squads of officers but the entire force--a process continued by Bejarano.

“I get asked by young officers how they can rise in this department,” said Bejarano, a former Marine and the city’s first Latino police chief. “I tell them: ‘Get involved in neighborhood policing, show me you understand the neighborhoods, make partnerships with neighborhood groups.’ ”

As a result of this continuity, San Diego has experienced virtually none of the organizational mood swings seen in the LAPD, where the leadership has changed from Ed Davis, a reformer, to Daryl Gates, a Parker acolyte, and then to Willie B. Williams, an outsider, and now to Bernard C. Parks, an insider.

In Los Angeles, Daryl Gates and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley developed an icy estrangement almost from the beginning, which may have exacerbated the department’s feeling of being apart from the city government.

In San Diego, during the same period, Kolender and Wilson were close allies, and their successors, Burgreen and Mayor Maureen O’Connor, also worked closely together.

Implicit in the San Diego police culture is a repudiation of the policing style of the LAPD.

“San Diego does not want a bunch of kick-ass cops,” said Jack McGrory, who served as San Diego city manager from 1991 to 1997. “This is not Los Angeles.”

In 1991, in the days after the beating of Rodney G. King, when LAPD brass were still defending the actions of their officers, San Diego showed the infamous videotape of the incident to all its officers as an example of bad policing.

Numerous San Diego officers, including former chief Sanders, say they can often see the difference when they pull over a motorist from Los Angeles.

“You approach the car and, particularly if the person is African American, they already have their hands in the air,” said Sanders. “You ask why and they say, ‘That’s what they make us do it in L.A.’ ”

San Diego officer Chris Everett spent four years in the LAPD, in the Hollywood and 77th Street divisions, before joining the San Diego force seven years ago. He admires the LAPD but describes the difference in policing in the two cities as roughly akin to night and day.

“In Los Angeles, the style is to always be on guard, always maintain a tactical advantage, a kind of distance, because of the kind of incidents that police have experienced and the traditional behavior toward police that some people in Los Angeles have,” said Everett.

“Here, police are careful but they don’t assume everybody is going to be aggressive or violent. We try to be more approachable.”

A Variety of Differences

Examples of how the departments differ are abundant:

* LAPD has resisted calls from U.S. Atty. General Janet Reno and others to compile data to determine if police are using “racial profiling” when deciding which motorists to pull over. San Diego began such a study last year, and Bejarano has promised to release the results to community groups before they are reviewed by departmental analysts.

* LAPD has been slow to adopt a recommendation of the Christopher Commission to devise a computer program tracking which officers attract the most citizen complaints. San Diego three years ago installed a computer program that tells a lieutenant when any officer gets two complaints in a 12-month period so the officer can be sent for possible retraining or discipline.

* LAPD posts lists in some squad rooms of which officers have made the most arrests. San Diego officials say they don’t even keep such lists. “You get what you measure,” Welter said. “If you want officers solving problems, counting arrests isn’t going to help.”

* San Diego tries to ensure that 40% of a beat cop’s work day is “non-committed time” to work with residents on neighborhood problems. LAPD encourages such involvement but does not require it or provide specific time, a spokesman said.

* LAPD uses a management system akin to that used by the New York Police Department, where area commanders are brought together regularly and grilled by top brass about why crime numbers are not declining and what is being done to solve certain high-profile crimes. San Diego officials find that system needlessly confrontational and likely to undercut morale and produce crime figures of dubious credibility.

* The LAPD chief has a five-year contract from the Police Commission and appeal rights to the City Council if any action is taken against him, a reform imposed after Gates retired. The San Diego chief reports to the city manager, who can fire him without notice, explanations or appeal.

“You think about it,” Sanders said of the job insecurity of being San Diego chief. “But it also means you have to work with everybody. It produces compromise and listening. Listening is very important to police work.”

The chief’s job is “to get along with the politicians, not the other way around,” said Burgreen. “I think Gates--who I consider a friend--forgot that and ended up fighting his community rather than working with it.”


Safer Streets

San Diego has had the second-lowest crime rate and steepest drop in crime over the last decade among cities of at least 1 million population. New York City is first but hasproportionately three times as many police officers on the street.


1999 crime Rate of Police Officers per 100,000 change officers per 1,000 residents 1990-99 in 1998 residents Dallas 9,754 -37% 2,855 2.65 Chicago 8,162 -27% 13,469 4.81 Phoenix 7,899 -26% 2,493 2.08 Houston 7,375 -34% 5,453 3.05 Philadelphia 7,287 1% 6,912 4.81 San Antonio 6,891 -42% 1,875 1.68 Los Angeles 4,656 -50% 9,723 2.70 San Diego 4,062 -56% 2,021 1.66 New York 4,037 -58% 39,149 5.28



Note: Crime rates for 1999 are based on 1998 population figures, the latest available. Rates for Chicago exclude rape.

Source: FBI