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California and the West

Less-Traveled Path Leads to Success for San Diego Police

Law enforcement: An emphasis on innovation and community relations pays off for a department once plagued by allegations of racism and brutality.

August 14, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — 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.

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