Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Shelley Zimmerman visited with SDPD officers after she was sworn in as police chief.
Things started to fall apart Oct. 6, 2010.
San Diego police officer Robert Acosta stepped into a Riverside County courtroom that day to face felony charges along with his wife, for trashing their foreclosed home.
The charges against Acosta began a seven-month stretch that saw 11 SDPD officers arrested or otherwise accused of serious misconduct. Ultimately, ongoing misconduct issues have led to the sudden retirement of the city’s longtime police chief, millions of dollars in legal settlements and continued calls for outside oversight of the department.
This guide will catch you up on what’s happened and what’s coming next.
The ‘Teflon’ Cop
Anthony Arevalos stands out. He was convicted in 2011 of soliciting sexual bribes from five women while on duty and related charges. The city has settled multiple civil lawsuits involving his conduct for $2.3 million. A lawsuit from Arevalos’ final victim, a 32-year-old woman known in court papers as Jane Doe, is still being hashed out in court.
Doe’s lawyers allege that SDPD’s problems go far beyond a rogue cop, and instead point to a department culture of covering up serious misconduct.
Arevalos’ supervisors knew about multiple allegations of sexual misconduct before his arrest, but never seriously disciplined him, documents from Doe’s lawsuit revealed.
A police colleague of Arevalos even called him “Teflon” because he felt Arevalos believed he could get away with anything.
Even after Arevalos’ arrest in 2011, the district attorney investigator on the case believed SDPD held back a full investigation of his conduct.
And while Arevalos represents a low point for the department, other troubling cases have emerged in recent years too: Three female officers settled lawsuits with the city after alleging sexual harassment and retaliation, another cop pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after a prostitute accused him of raping her while on duty and officers were accused of trying to cover up the drunk driving of a gang detective.
The Chief’s Exit
When the flurry of misconduct allegations came to a head in 2011, Police Chief William Lansdowne looked like he’d weathered the storm.
He promised to boost officer wellness programs, beef up internal investigations and review department discipline procedures and use of force training. The mayor and City Council praised his quick action. Things got so quiet that the police department was barely an issue in the 2012 mayoral campaign.
But things haven’t stayed quiet.
We revealed that SDPD was failing to follow a key policy to prevent racial profiling. At first, Lansdowne and other officials downplayed resident concerns about the issue. Later, at a packed Council committee hearing, Lansdowne asked council members to outfit all his patrol officers with body cameras.
Soon after, officer Christopher Hays was charged with felony false imprisonment and misdemeanor sexual battery. The day after Hays was charged, Lansdowne told reporters that another officer, later identified as Donald Moncrief, was under investigation for sexual misconduct.
“I can’t tell you about human behavior,” Lansdowne said after announcing the Moncrief investigation. “But I can tell you we’ll root it out and we’ll take care of it.”
The chief promised even more reforms, including a new policy requiring two officers to transport all female arrestees. Lansdowne also pledged to seek an outside review of the department’s practices from the U.S. Department of Justice or a police research firm. He wanted to stick around to see the department through the controversy.
Then he changed course. Two weeks after new Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s election, the 69-year-old Lansdowne decided to retire. Lansdowne’s announcement came the same day a Superior Court judge threw out the two most serious convictions against Arevalos, blaming an SDPD detective’s mistake during the criminal trial.
The New Chief’s Challenges
Faulconer acted quickly to replace Lansdowne. He chose Shelley Zimmerman, a Lansdowne deputy with whom he has had a long working relationship. Zimmerman had quarterbacked the department’s neighborhood policing efforts. Zimmerman, who was sworn in last week, is SDPD’s first female chief and the only woman currently leading a police department among the nation’s 10 largest cities.
Zimmerman backs the outside audit of the department Lansdowne proposed. She also promised to reinstate a police anticorruption unit Lansdowne had disbanded. But she doesn’t believe the department needs independent oversight, something lawyers for Jane Doe are arguing for.
Beyond misconduct, Zimmerman faces a host of other issues. For years, the department has seen significant budget cuts. About half the force is eligible for retirement in the next four years, and the department has struggled to recruit and retain qualified cops.
Two years ago, Lansdowne unveiled a $50 million-plus plan to hire dozens of new officers and civilian employees and upgrade the department’s technology and equipment. He called Zimmerman “the genius” behind the effort. Parts of the plan, however, have stalled and it’s on Zimmerman to make the case for reviving them.
More broadly, Zimmerman has to decide on a policing philosophy. Before Lansdowne, the department threw resources at neighborhood policing. But Lansdowne prioritized a strategy that emphasized patrol officers and speedy crime response.
Lansdowne oversaw the city’s lowest crime rates in 50 years, but also the misconduct scandal that led to his departure.
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