In San Diego, not your typical police scandal
Police Chief William Lansdowne was on his way to work Wednesday morning when he got a call that one of his officers had just been accused of kidnapping and raping a 34-year-old woman while on duty.
The timing of such a serious allegation could not have been worse: The day before, Lansdowne had held a news conference to publicly apologize for a recent spate of misconduct allegations against his officers and to announce a crackdown against rogues in the ranks.
By Wednesday afternoon, when a visibly angry Lansdowne held his second news conference in two days, the officer in the latest case had been charged with committing felonies under color of authority and was no longer with the department.
The ex-officer, Daniel Dana, 26, a former Marine and four-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he threatened to arrest the woman, a prostitute, unless she had sex with him.
The task of repairing the damage to the department’s reputation in light of its recent troubles has only just begun, the chief said.
“It’s going to take several years to win back the confidence of a large section of the community,” said Lansdowne, who was hired in 2003 to lead the 1,800-officer department after serving as chief in the Northern California cities of San Jose and Richmond.
In some large cities with much bigger departments, 10 allegations of police misconduct might not cause as much of a stir.
But the clustering of these cases over a roughly two-month period has delivered a particularly heavy blow to the state’s second-largest city, whose self-image is aligned with its official motto as America’s Finest City.
“We recruit from the human race, and things are going to happen from time to time,” said Bill Farrar, a San Diego police officer for most of four decades and former president of the police officers’ union. “That said, this seems to be a grouping we’ve never seen before.”
Of the 10 incidents — including allegations of drunk driving, spousal abuse, rape, stalking and excessive force — four allegedly occurred while the officers were on duty. Of the allegations involving excessive force, none involves gunfire.
One off-duty officer is accusing of punching a neighborhood teenager after finding him smoking marijuana in a car outside the officer’s house. Another allegation is that an on-duty officer was unusually rough in arresting a fan at a soccer match at Qualcomm Stadium — a scuffle captured on a video phone and shown repeatedly on local television.
An officer accused of demanding sex from women after traffic stops has been fired; an officer being investigated by police in El Cajon for an alleged off-duty rape has resigned under pressure. It’s unclear whether Daniel Dana quit or was fired.
Lansdowne announced that he is adding officers to the internal affairs unit, establishing a 24-hour hot line and ordering that supervisors receive “early intervention” training on how to spot troublesome officers. Also, he has ordered a review of the department’s policy on the use of force.
The individual allegations and Lansdowne’s back-to-back news conferences have dominated local news.
Still, the cases do not appear to have the elements that often lead to long-lasting controversy at big-city police departments. There are no accusations involving racial or ethnic bias; there is no evidence of a cover-up among police officials; the allegations do not seem to point to one particular station house or division.
“The L.A. brutality [cases], New Orleans theft and excessive force [cases], and NYPD corruption scandals are of a very different character and seriousness than the San Diego cases,” said Paul Pfingst, who served two terms as San Diego County district attorney and is now in private practice, including criminal defense.
Pfingst said he sees the San Diego allegations as “individual, unrelated acts as opposed to a pattern of similar behavior engaged in and explicitly or tacitly approved by colleagues.”
At City Hall, Mayor Jerry Sanders, a former police chief, told reporters that he approved of Lansdowne’s handling of the allegations and that his job was not in jeopardy. Before being elected mayor, Sanders was an official with the local United Way and sat on the screening committee that recommended Lansdowne.
Under the City Charter, the police chief works for the mayor and can be fired with a simple phone call, although that decision could be overridden by a supermajority on the City Council. Lansdowne said he talked with Sanders at length before announcing his reform actions.
Among the chief’s biggest supporters is Council President Tony Young, the council’s only African American member, whose racially diverse district has historically been the scene of some of the most controversial police actions, often with racial overtones.
The days of routinely high tension between officers and community members are in the past, Young noted, pointing to the outpouring of grief in his district at the shooting death of a white police officer attempting to arrest a drug suspect.
“We have one of the finest police departments, if not the finest, in the country,” Young said.
Councilwoman Marti Emerald, a former investigative reporter who chairs the council committee that oversees the Police Department, said she might call a hearing to discuss what “stressors” on officers may have contributed to the alleged misconduct.
“We need to have an honest talk about what’s happening over there,” she said.
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