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In 1980, the English crime novelist James McClure arrived in San Diego to profile how an American police department works. Bill Kolender, then the city’s police chief, gave McClure unrestricted access to interrogation rooms, department meetings and his cops.
Published in 1984, McClure’s book, Cop World, helped place San Diego at the forefront of progressive policing, or as McClure put it, a “radical departure from conventional police attitudes.” Under Kolender, the department implemented sweeping changes to improve community relations and involve residents in cleaning up their own neighborhoods.
These strategies, like creating neighborhood watch groups and more cops walking the beat, fell under the umbrella term of Community Oriented Policing and earned the department international acclaim. Years later, Jerry Sanders would reinvigorate those progressive attitudes in the department with a modified strategy called Problem Oriented Policing, which focused on attacking the root of crimes, such as repeat drunks.
San Diego became renowned for its innovative policing tactics and the popular strategies helped launch the political careers of Kolender and Sanders. Kolender became the county’s political powerhouse in law enforcement as sheriff and Sanders the city’s current mayor.
This week we asked Tim Smith to address whether those progressive attitudes continue today. Smith, 55, is a crime novelist himself and was featured in McClure’s book under the pseudonym “Luke Jones.” He also has a nonfiction book in the works: Cop World II.
Smith, retired from San Diego law enforcement in 2003 after 27 years, has returned to the city periodically to research how the department has changed since McClure’s book. We talked about the legacy of progressive policing tactics, how the department under Kolender compares to the department under Chief Bill Lansdowne and why the rank and file don’t like Jerry Sanders.
How will your research compare to McClure’s? Do you also have “unrestricted” access?
Yes, I do. When I met with Chief Lansdowne, I expected him to say something like, “Well let me run this by my senior team and we’ll talk about it and get back to you,” and none of that happened. I walked in and told him what I wanted to do, and he said, “Yes, no problem. Do it.”
One of the things I feel like the San Diego PD has definitely retained is openness to the media that was evident when Bill Kolender was willing to make the department available to McClure when a lot of other departments were not.
When McClure came to San Diego, he was a complete outsider, to both the city and American policing tactics. Does your familiarity with the department make duplicating his effort different?
It is kind of an insider’s look, which was very different from his. That’s the biggest difference between my book and his. He was a journalist with a journalist’s eye who primarily let the stories of the ride-alongs and interviews tell the tale.
He was very much in favor of community policing. The tone of book told you that he was very much a big fan of the San Diego Police Department in a lot of ways. But in my opinion he also, as an outsider, was bamboozled a little bit.
It felt like the cops were kind of leading him by the nose and were kind of full of shit. For instance, in talking about whether or not they have probable cause to make an arrest … [some descriptions were] baloney. That’s just not the way it would have gone down.
Do you think cops were always honest to you, or did they put a shine on things?
No, I think there was honesty. I rode with officers who were very candid and to be honest with you, I was kind of surprised at how forthcoming and ingenuous they were. I didn’t see anything disingenuous, even to the point where I have struggled a little bit with how forthcoming I should be with what I’ve seen, but of course as a writer, you have to tell the truth.
Can you give any examples of that conflict?
(Pause) Let me say this: I saw a couple of officers do some things that were in direct violation of department policy and probably even the law. I’m not going to say who or under what circumstances.
(Cop World put) a kind of pristine container over the San Diego PD that was largely accurate, at least from my experiences. I feel like I’m going to have to go on more ride-alongs and more interviews to make this assertion in the book, but I feel like that’s no longer as strong a part of the persona of the Police Department as it used to be.
What do you think is the starkest comparison between McClure’s portrayal of the department and today?
Around the time he was here, there’s was a lot of unrest about pay and some of the cops had been marching on City Council, and had gone into meetings demanding to be heard that they were underpaid, and cops were leaving in droves.
What I found, while initially going on ride-alongs, is how much that is still the same. But the irony is now that the mayor is a former chief of police, who in my experience, used to be almost universally liked and respected and now is pretty much despised by most cops.
How do you know that he’s held in that level of regard?
Because I’ve been on the ride-alongs and I’ve heard the conversations. I had one cop who was a supervisor who was very circumspect, and not a rabble-rouser, not the kind of guy who would normally trash his bosses. And he said, “I’m normally not this negative. I’m normally not the guy who gets upset, but you know, fuck him.” I’ve heard that kind of thing from a lot of the cops.
I like and respect Jerry Sanders a lot. I worked for him twice. He was my sergeant when I was a new officer and he was my captain was I was a sergeant. I’m not passing any judgment in terms of how I feel about him.
I’m just telling you what I’ve heard from the rank and file.
How would you compare the department under Kolender to the department today under Lansdowne?
My perception is that Lansdowne has a much more traditional approach to policing. You have to remember when Bill Kolender was chief, we drove white cars, wore tan uniforms without patches. They were making a very active effort to not seem paramilitary and to be approachable by the public.
Have we gone back to what’s known as the paramilitary police structure (which is the opposite of Community Oriented Policing)?
It’s definitely even more of a paramilitary organization than it was back in the early ’80s.
Are there any remnants of the community policing programs spearheaded by Kolender, and highlighted by McClure in his book?
I’m going to tell you that I believe community policing is dead in San Diego.
Now, there are some people who will tell you that community policing is so deeply ingrained in the culture and problem-oriented policing deeply ingrained in the culture.
I have a tendency to feel that’s political correctness. I don’t see it that much.
They have programs to work with serial inebriates. But for the most part, if you sit in the police car with cops who know you and respect you, and you say, what about community policing, is it dead? All of the cops I’ve dealt with so far have either made that assertion or agreed with my assertion after I’ve ridden along and observed it.
Why has the department moved away from it?
[It] was never fully developed in my opinion.
The upper echelon thought community policing was being implemented but on the level of the street, supervisors were still demanding that you bring in numbers. You never heard the phrase “quota” exactly, but that’s really where you were. You had to prove to your sergeant that you were out there, day by day, generating numbers, making arrests and writing tickets.
At the same time, the upper echelon was saying that was no longer a priority, and cops were stuck in the middle of this, not knowing how to fit in.
I do think there’s still an expectation that you need to be prepared to speak community policing, speak the jargon in interviews, if you want to get promoted, but I think that’s kind of a dinosaur remnant.
I think the current chief is more focused, well, you know, he’s lost so many cops … he’s so busy with the day-to-day reality of trying to figure out how to run a police department.
Do you think the city is better off today without community policing programs?
If it had ever been fully implemented, it would be harder for me to answer that question. Because community policing never went from the innovation phase to really becoming part of the culture of the department … I would say they’re better off without it only because they weren’t successful in implementing it totally.
— Interview conducted and edited by KEEGAN KYLE