Broken, abandoned cars were piling up in the 4700 block of Nogal Street, near the heart of Lincoln Park, back in 1989. Residents kept calling police to complain.
So police put Sheila Kinney on the case. She was a community service officer, focused on crime prevention, not crime response.
She talked to residents, staked out the street. And in a few weeks, she discovered the cause. A mechanic was running an illegal scheme: Towing cars, fixing them up, then charging owners for the repairs. And his shop was on Nogal Street.
The abandoned cars were little more than an eyesore, and certainly a lower priority for San Diego Police than the growing wave of violent crime in Lincoln Park and the neighborhoods around it. But the department still made sure that Kinney was available to residents, to rebuild trust, to combat social tensions and ultimately, to prevent more crime.
Efforts like it were happening all around San Diego, as police worked with residents and other city workers to clean up drug, prostitution and gang hotspots across the city. It was spurred by a concept called problem-oriented policing, a strategy designed to empower police to prevent crime, not just respond to it, and to team up with residents to build trust. Police adopted it into their mission.
But in recent years, the San Diego Police Department has moved away from the core concept that won it international acclaim in the 1990s. The number of police storefronts, which made officers more accessible to residents, has been cut in half. Code compliance officers, who only address chronic issues like abandoned cars and party houses, have dropped from 20 to seven.
And under Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposed budget, the cuts would continue next year. The city would eliminate its four-member graffiti-removal team, shifting responsibility to other governments and local residents. Just four code compliance officers would remain.
The very efforts that people say defined the best qualities of San Diego government two decades ago would become an even smaller part of the city’s new identity. Problem-oriented policing would move closer to becoming a lingering memory of a bygone era.
The result: A police officer in San Diego today places greater focus on responding faster to dangerous situations than on preventing underlying causes.
“They’re about to unravel several decades of really good work,” said Jon Shane, who researches policing and public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “I don’t think anyone has ever really embraced it like San Diego has.”
The Rise of Problem Solving
With drug markets worsening in southeastern neighborhoods like Lincoln Park in the late 1980s, San Diego began to test its new approach to policing. A young captain overseeing the area, Jerry Sanders, latched on to the idea after seeing a drop in drug-related crime.
Compared to other cities running similar tests, federal authorities saw the results in San Diego as the most promising and poured in millions to test the approach on other issues — not just drug corners. The grants paid for overtime so officers could attend meetings with residents and research the factors contributing to their everyday complaints like graffiti, drag racing and problem bars. Police created numerous task forces to target specific problems like gangs.
And it was a methodical process. Police met with residents to identify issues, researched them, met with residents again and then took action. And, perhaps most importantly, officers shared their newfound knowledge with other officers so they too could apply the tactics in their own patrol beats.
By addressing even simple nuisances in the community, police officers hoped to prevent the cascading tensions that motivated crimes, improve their understanding of the community’s inner-workings and build trust with residents.
By 1990, in recognition of its growing reputation for the strategy, San Diego was selected to host the first national conference on problem-oriented policing. And in 1993, the city appointed Sanders, the concept’s greatest local champion, to become its next police chief.
“That was his biggest strength,” said Jack McGrory, the former city manager who nominated Sanders at the time. “I picked him because he was a strong advocate.”
One of Sanders’ first decisions was promoting John Welter, now Anaheim’s police chief, to lead efforts to institutionalize community policing throughout the department.
“I’ll never forget my first meeting with him,” Welter recalled. “The chief called me and said, ‘If you don’t have enough resources to make this happen, you need to ask for them. If this doesn’t work, it will most likely cost your job and mine.’”
The money came. Sanders grew the department and its community movement in the 1990s. He created a new assistant chief position for Welter and a new community policing unit, too.
McGrory also expanded the concept to involve other city departments like libraries, recreational centers, building inspectors and city attorneys. Each had a role to play. Libraries and rec centers kept young people off the streets. Building inspectors and attorneys could help evict problem tenants. Police officers were the organizers.
“It was a different way to look at the community and look at city department responses and help neighborhoods in their problems,” McGrory said. “In terms of an operation philosophy in the city, it was the front-runner.”
By the time Sanders retired as police chief in 1999, the annual number of murders in San Diego had dropped from 133 to 57. It followed a national decline in crime, but nonetheless, Sanders and his deputies attributed the fall to their community policing approach.
In Sanders’ last year as chief, he increased the Police Department’s budget one last time to expand the ranks of community service officers like Sheila Kinney.
But just a decade later, after years of budget shortfalls, the city has largely eliminated those employees from the Police Department. In order to fulfill a budget-cutting promise he made to voters in 2005, Jerry Sanders, now mayor, has needed to undermine the same efforts he once touted as police chief.
In an interview, Sanders said employees like Kinney were never meant to be a permanent fixture in the Police Department. Despite the recent cuts, he said the problem-solving approach continues with officers.
“The idea was always to have every police officer be involved in community policing. And I think you’ll see that,” Sanders said. “I just think it’s a different level of community policing now.”
Less Crime, Less Time
Some of the signature programs created during the 1990s or shortly after do remain part of the Police Department today. The Homeless Outreach Team, a group of specialized officers and mental health experts, still patrols downtown. The Serial Inebriate Program, created in 2000, still aims to connect chronic alcoholics with social services. And all the institutional knowledge gained through problem-oriented policing can always be found in stacks of training manuals and old reports.
But in recent years, officers and residents say police spend less time in the community and less time addressing chronic problems. It still happens, but not as often.
The shift hasn’t gained widespread attention. Though police are spending less time with residents, crime levels keep falling, mirroring national trends. Police reported 29 murders last year, the lowest number since the 1960s.
But residents and researchers worry about what will happen if the police continue to spend less and less time solving problems alongside residents. Shane, the professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, expected rising tensions among residents and police.
“There’s nothing more unsatisfying or frustrating for communities than to have protracted problems, like prostitution and abandoned cars, and not have police at the forefront,” he said. “People have come to expect these things.”
Police have been gradually cutting back on problem-oriented policing since Sanders’ successor, David Bejarano, left the department and was replaced in 2003 by Bill Lansdowne, who is the current police chief. Even before San Diego’s financial woes fully emerged and police officers were put on the chopping block, Lansdowne said there weren’t enough officers to spare time for community policing.
“At full staffing, we could do that. We can’t now,” he told the Union-Tribune after he became chief.
When Sanders was chief, he pushed to have patrol officers spend 60 percent of their time responding to emergencies so the rest could be used for problem-solving with residents. Today, Lansdowne estimates 80 percent of a patrol officer’s time goes toward emergencies and doesn’t expect that number to drop with additional cuts on the horizon.
“I’d love to be able to do that,” he said in a recent interview. “I can’t.”
City officials and police officers say the recent decline in problem-oriented policing has been driven by the budget cuts. But it’s also been driven by Lansdowne’s priorities. Since 2003, federal grants that once funded officer overtime for community policing have mostly gone toward technology, like a new dispatch system.
McGrory, the former city manager, said more than budget cuts are responsible for the Police Department’s changing shape. It’s about priorities, he said, and where city officials choose to place their resources.
“That is not a good excuse,” he said of the city’s recent financial problems. “That’s a bad excuse for bad government.”
When Lansdowne arrived in San Diego, he adopted a new concept called intelligence-led policing. The department collects and analyzes massive amounts of crime data and field intelligence to figure out where problems will most likely occur. Then, using real-time information, it shifts patrols and other special units to be in a position to respond as quickly as possible if something happens.
The concept relies on a large patrol force that can shift with little notice, so when city officials have asked Lansdowne to cut his budget, he’s chosen to dismantle special units and pull out of regional task forces in order to maintain patrol levels and improve response times. Despite having a smaller police force today than when he arrived, response times have improved under Lansdowne.
With problem-oriented policing, residents played a crucial role in identifying which issues police should address and working with them to find solutions. Under Lansdowne’s model, data plays a more prominent role in driving the department’s actions. Residents are in the backseat, not driving.
Reflecting this shift, Lansdowne and his top deputies have publicly emphasized the city’s crime rate and response times above performance measures used in the past — things such as neighborhood involvement or community satisfaction. In next year’s proposed budget, the crime rate and response times are the only performance measures mentioned.
In an interview, Lansdowne said the department has changed under his watch because of limited resources, but that public input is still valued. Lansdowne said he attends the same number of community meetings now as he did years ago, but sees fewer residents showing up.
And to rebuke those who claim community policing is entirely dormant, he points to a few specifically targeted programs created since his arrival in San Diego: Curfew sweeps alongside social service providers and mental health experts riding with police.
“I think that’s heads and shoulders ahead of the neighborhood policing that it used to be,” Lansdowne said. They involve numerous other agencies, residents and schools, using the same cooperation that problem-oriented policing promoted.
The mayor, police chief and other city leaders frequently cite the curfew sweeps as a successful partnership with residents. Police typically conduct the sweeps monthly to deter young people from perpetrating crimes or becoming victims after curfew. After arresting the youth, police contact their parents and arrange a meeting that night with social service providers. In order to avoid a ticket, some can attend a counseling program.
Lansdowne and numerous others said the era of problem-oriented policing is ingrained in the mindset of the department’s officers, since it’s now taught in training academies.
But Brian Marvel, president of the police officers union, said the problem-solving mindset of patrol officers has waned in the field since Lansdowne took over because staffing decisions don’t give officers enough time to meet with residents and research how to solve problems.
“Ten years ago it was highly stressed and now it’s not,” he said. “They’re not doing it how they used to do it.”
Today, Shelley Zimmerman fills the assistant chief slot that Sanders created for Welter in the 1990s to oversee the department’s neighborhood policing efforts. She too acknowledges that police officers spend less time on problem-solving with residents but said it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, she said, the shift has been positive in communities where residents have stepped into the vacancy, once filled by police, to fix problems like graffiti.
“We’ve empowered them,” she said. “That’s how it’s evolved. The community has taken a lot more active role in a lot of these issues.”