Bill Lansdowne came to San Diego six-and-a-half years ago an outsider. He was previously San Jose’s police chief, where he spent most of his career and rose through the ranks.
Unlike some metropolitan police departments, San Diego’s chief is an at-will employee, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Lansdowne’s a chief working under a former chief, Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Last fall, Sanders directed Lansdowne to form a proposal for cutting $73 million from the Police Department’s budget. The city ended up slicing just $16 million through civilian layoffs, a reduced focus on specialized services and shedding some units like harbor patrol and the equestrian unit.
Now that all of those cuts have been made, we wanted to catch up with Lansdowne about how the department is moving on and whether he plans to stick around. At 65, Lansdowne could retire today and receive the same pension as if he stayed for a few more years.
Let’s step back to the last round of budget cuts. You stood behind sworn police officers rather than civilian employees for layoffs in the department. Why?
It would be far more effective for us, as painful as it is, to cut civilian staff because if there’s a major emergency all those officers could be mobilized very quickly.
I imagine the layoffs and budget cuts affected department morale in some way. Is there a morale problem and if so, how are you dealing with it?
I think the officers are frustrated. Well, they are frustrated, because they want to do the best job they possibly can, and they would really like to see those services stay intact.
There are money problems in the city, just like a household and I believe the greatest majority of officers within the department get it. They understand it. They aren’t happy with it, and I don’t blame them, but I think they get it.
The mayor continues to talk about more budget cuts. Where do you think cuts could come from in the Police Department?
The mayor has been absolutely spectacular to work with. We understand that we’ve got to make it work with the resources we have. There is a line where we won’t go below, and we both understand that, and we’re getting real close to that.
With the department’s largest expense being personnel, is that line cutting sworn officers?
There’s no absolutes right now. I’m unaware of any decision to lay off sworn police officers at all.
Is there still a recruitment/retention crisis?
No. Nobody’s hiring. There’s nowhere to go. Where we were getting small numbers of 50 to 60 officers applying, we’re getting several hundred officers apply every time. There’s no limit to the number of officers I could hire if I had the money to be able to do that.
You’re at the top of a large police department, but do you have further career aspirations? Maybe a run for mayor like another former chief?
(laughing) You know how those rumors get started! It’s a kiss of death. Let me tell you, I’ve never been more involved or happier in a job, and I’ve been in three different cities now.
I think we’re at a critical juncture in this department. It’s going to be a tough 18 months to two years and the department’s going to need someone to manage that. I have absolutely no intention of going somewhere else.
I believe this will be the last job in law enforcement I have. I’m getting to that age where the reality of how long you can really last in this business is certainly there. I don’t think many people can keep up with me right now, but there’s certainly a time when I’ll slow down.
I’d very much like to finish up my career with Jerry Sanders. That’s my game plan. He’s just been great to work with. He’s far more compassionate than people realize.
Where do you want your replacement to come from? Inside or outside the department?
I have the talent to replace me here within the San Diego Police Department. It would be my absolute hope and desire that the next person that comes would be someone that I’ve worked with and mentored. They can be chiefs anywhere in the country.
Who will you endorse for the Sheriff’s race and why?
I don’t endorse in local races. I can tell you that Bill Gore has been a great friend and I couldn’t ask for a better partner in this business.
A great example would be the Chelsea King case and how well we worked together on that case. It was well done. It wasn’t about territory or location. It was about who was in the best place at the time, armed with the information to find Chelsea as quick as we could.
Do you think that investigation would have been any different had San Diego Police taken the lead?
I think the Sheriff’s Department started that case. They had the resources on the ground. It would have been a terrible mistake to change direction or change command during that investigation. It worked as well as it could.
How do you think your officers view your performance as chief? What’s your impression?
My impression is that I’m a professional. That I’m dealing with a lot of problems, and we’ve managed them well. They may not be happy with me as chief, or anybody in a position of authority, but if everybody’s happy with you, you’re not doing your job.
— Interview conducted and edited by KEEGAN KYLE