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Saturday, July 29, 2006 | Last October, Cesar Solis had a decision to make. Solis, who celebrates his 25th anniversary with the San Diego Police Department this month, had just been promoted to captain, and he was asked to compile a “wish list” of where he’d like to be stationed.
Solis’s law enforcement career had been quite varied. He started out in 1981 as a patrol officer in San Ysidro. Since then, he seems to have seen it all, from Southeast San Diego to Point Loma, from SWAT team, narcotics and gang unit involvement to downtown detective. He’d even been the community relations assistant to Chief Jerry Sanders, before the chief became the mayor.
When he was asked to choose where he wanted to go, Solis asked to be posted in the Southeastern Division, despite its perception of having high crime rates and gang activity.
Solis sat down with voiceofsandiego.org in his office in the Southeastern Division police station on Skyline Drive in Encanto to talk about San Diego’s crime rates, his assessment of the police personnel shortages in the department and the scariest experience he’s ever had in 25 years on the job.
What is it that drew you back to Southeast San Diego?
Oh, you know, it’s not so much the activity, although, that was part of it. A lot of it, honestly, was the community that was here. … San Diego PD as a whole, and I know this personally from working community relations, enjoys a very strong working relationship in all communities, in all segments in the city. And I knew that one of the strongest relationships and partnerships was here in these communities, and, you know, I wanted to be a part of that.
Southeastern Division is stigmatized, there’s a stereotype. People think of a certain level of crime activity and what they don’t realize is, there’s a lot of good people that live here. There’s actually some very nice neighborhoods and some nice homes. There’s Little League, there’s Pop Warner, there are community events. There are a lot of bright kids that go on to universities from these neighborhoods. It’s a very vibrant, very active community; it’s not just the crime that sometimes can be associated with this area.
Can you speak a little bit about that, what are some of the biggest challenges faced by the Southeastern Division?
Some of the challenges are probably… some of the crime activity that’s faced here is a lot of gang activity and … a lot of shootings and … violence. Although, not all the violence … is necessarily … gang activity. Just like in other communities, there’s domestic violence, there’s road rage, there’s robberies and assaults that may not have anything to do with gangs …
There’s a lot of talk, too, about officers leaving the city of San Diego. What can you tell me about the turnover in your division here? And as far as you know, you’ve worked in divisions all across the city, what’s the level of conversation about the officers leaving?
Oh, well, it is a significant issue with the department. We’re probably no different here than any other commands and they’re leaving for various reasons … But I will say this, though, and not that it’s not an important issue, because it is … (but) there are a lot of officers and detectives that are not leaving, that are not going anywhere, that are feeling the struggle to continue with what’s going on, as far as no pay raises. But they’re not leaving; they’re committed to the community of San Diego but also the San Diego Police Department. There’s a lot more people staying than are leaving.
I’m not saying that we don’t have a problem but it appears to have slowed down. … I know that the Chief (William Lansdowne) and … the mayor and the City Council are committed to changing that and hopefully we can see something concrete soon. But … don’t forget the officers and the detectives who aren’t leaving. They’re staying, they’re toughing it out. It’s not easy, but they’re committed to ride this out. And they need to be recognized also.
What’s your thought process as far as that is concerned? Do you count yourself in that second camp, of people who are … waiting it out?
Oh, I am definitely not going anywhere and my challenge as the commanding officer of this command is, despite the staffing issues … we do everything we can to ensure that we have the appropriate staffing levels …
We want to make sure that we’re top of any issues … when it comes to equipment, scheduling, or all these things that mean a lot to the personnel. The one thing, though, despite challenges in staffing, the officers and detectives are still doing some incredible police work. They’re still making arrests. They’re still recovering guns – they’re taking guns off crooks. They’re putting people who need to be arrested, who need to be locked up …
So … when you go through these type of things, there are morale issues, but I’ve never seen a tighter group of officers come together. And part of it might be because of what’s going on, it draws people together.
I’ve heard a report that one of the strategies that the SDPD is using to kind of “work around” the shortages is taking some of the officers who’ve been on the community watches … (the) Community Relations Officers, and putting them back out on patrol. What do you think the impact of that strategy will be on the police force?
Well, on the positive side, we’ll have uniformed officers ready to go to fill in some of the gaps out in the field. On the negative side, [the CROs] played a very important role. They were a vital link to community residents, community organizations, and community leaders. What that means for us is that we’re going to have to pick up the slack and make sure that the needs in the community are still addressed.
It’s a significant hit, a loss, but their expertise, their contacts out in the community will still be in the field. And hopefully, when things get better and we bring the staffing levels back up, we can revisit that and put them out there because they played an important role in connecting with the community.
You mentioned your experience with narcotics. Obviously, a large percentage of crimes are related to drug use, drug selling, that sort of thing, especially meth. San Diego used to be sort of a hub for meth. Have you noticed improvements in that area?
San Diego no longer has this distinction, but at one time it was known as the meth capital because of the number of labs … I think in the late ’80s and early ’90s. There was a large number of labs that were discovered here in San Diego. When that was discovered, there were several things that, in my opinion, succeeded in shutting down a majority of the labs. One is a closer partnership with Drug Enforcement Administration…
We have one of the largest partnerships, I believe it’s like 30 years, working on a narcotics task force with the DEA in combating meth labs. … There was a San Diego County Meth Strike Force, that is now looked at as a model across the country for several jurisdictions back in the Midwest who’d never even heard of meth and now are experiencing these problems …
Now, to answer your question: Did it have an effect? Well, the sales and the use are still a priority and it’s still a major problem, but now a good majority of [the labs] have moved either north or south … the good news is that we don’t have the amount of labs anymore that we used to have.
Over your entire 25-year career, what’s the most dangerous experience you’ve had?
In the mid-1980s, (looking at the framed notice hanging on his office wall) … on May 4, 1985, I was working in a Regency Task Force down at Southern division. We were … with Border Patrol and we were combating … robberies, rapes and murders that were happening down at the off-road areas along the border, the U.S.-Mexican border. And bandits, we were calling them “border bandits,” were targeting undocumented aliens, robbing large groups and pretty much without any fear of law enforcement, because Border Patrol [agents] were too spread out. And so our job was to stop them …
On May 4th … they thought we were undocumented aliens, and we were confronted by several armed bandits and one of them opened fire on our team leader. It was a Border Patrol agent, and he was shot five or six times. And he survived, (but) he almost died…. It wasn’t the only shooting that I got involved in on that detail, but that one was the closest, where a very close friend, your partner, and in this incident he was my team leader, was shot several times. And we thought we lost him, it was that critical. But he survived. He’s retired but he’s alive and well.
If you could go back now and talk to yourself on the first day of the job as an officer, what would you advise yourself?
I would probably … smile because I would look at that person and think, ‘He has no idea what he’s going to get into.’ I would probably tell myself, ‘Hey, enjoy the good times,’ because there’ll be a lot of good times, but in the worst of times – and there were some tough times – that it’ll be OK.
You see a lot of things, especially with victims, that you’ll never forget, but in the end, looking back, after 25 years, absolutely I have no regrets. I’m at a point where I’m starting to think about retirement, and it’s not going to last forever. It’s going to end one day… and I’m not sure I’m going to want it to end. That’s probably what I would say…. ‘Stand by, it’s going to be a good ride.’
– Interview by KELLY BENNETT