Officer Bob Lopez had been with the San Diego Police Department for seven years when a drunken brawl nearly cost him his job.
It was 1986. He was drunk, at a bar in East County, off-duty, and a biker said something to him. He doesn’t remember why. He does remember a beer bottle being smashed against his nose and drumming a few motorcycles with a pool cue.
He got fired days later. But he appealed to city of San Diego officials and won a year-long suspension instead. Lopez remembers the Civil Service Commission’s assessment of the department: “We don’t like the cavalier attitude the San Diego Police Department has toward alcoholism.”
Alcohol abuse had become rampant, several retired officers say, encouraged by a police culture in the 1970s that turned a blind eye. Lopez, who says he’s been sober since 1986, visited Los Angeles police for counseling during his suspension and eventually brought some of that department’s practices to San Diego. He organized meetings with fellow officers to discuss alcoholism and, during his final two years, he became the department’s full-time drug and alcohol counselor.
“With cops, you’re taught to never give up and with alcoholism, you have to give up,” Lopez said. “You have to say you’re weak. You have to go against what you’re taught.”
But after Lopez retired in 2004, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne swapped his full-time position for two part-time assignments. While Lopez had focused on preventing alcoholism through regular outreach, the two officers who replaced him had other responsibilities like patrol. Lopez had aimed to address alcoholism before it became evident through something like a bar fight, but the two officers primarily responded to complaints or incidents and then offered counseling services.
The change in alcohol policy highlights part of a broader shift in recent years that nine current or recently retired police officers interviewed for this story say has provided greater latitude for poor behavior to continue without notice. In order to maintain core functions like patrol and homicide investigations, the department has cut internal oversight and programs aimed at monitoring an officer’s performance.
These concerns have gained traction recently as the department faces its largest scandal in two decades. Ten officers are under investigation, accused of misconduct or crimes as serious as rape under the color of authority. The mayor called for reform. Lansdowne publicly apologized and proposed a seven-step plan to improve internal oversight and review policies.
Though retired officers say alcoholism in the department has greatly declined since the 1970s, two of the 10 officers under investigation have been accused of driving drunk, crashing into another vehicle and causing injury to the other driver. One of them has voluntarily enrolled in a substance abuse program, according to court filings. Prosecutors are considering charges against the other.
In an email interview Friday, Lansdowne said the department now plans to expand counseling training from two to four part-time assignments, given recent events. He said Lopez’s full-time position was cut in 2004 because other services were available and the new system was thought to be more effective and cost efficient. He didn’t say whether it is.
In public speeches and interviews, the chief has made a point of calling no shift in policy, budget reduction or level of stress excusable for the kind of behavior alleged recently. But through his proposed reforms and in an interview, Lansdowne does acknowledge that oversight has taken a hit.
“There is no question that over the past several years our staffing has been reduced due to budget cuts and we have lost a great deal of experience through attrition,” he wrote in an email. “I think it is reasonable to conclude that that kind of loss will have some impact on how effectively we supervise our people.”
The Strain on Supervisors
The elimination of a full-time alcohol counselor illustrates the kind of changes felt elsewhere in the department since Lansdowne became chief. It was a support position meant to help supervisors monitor the activities of officers who wield great power in the community.
Shortly after he became chief, Lansdowne also disbanded a unit aimed at proactively investigating misconduct among officers.
Supervisors represent about one out of every five sworn employees in the Police Department, but their ranks have been disproportionately impacted by recent financial pressures to keep positions vacant and save the city more money.
One out of every three unfilled positions is a supervisor like a captain or a lieutenant. Officers said this has had a trickledown effect on the rest of the department. Supervisors now have to manage more junior officers, which translates to approving more reports, attending more meetings, writing more evaluations and having less time to monitor for behavioral issues or misconduct.
When possible, police have shifted more responsibility to supervisors rather than cut into the number of officers who patrol the streets, investigate crimes and respond to emergencies. Those duties, the police chief has said, are the department’s top priorities.
Sergeants, who directly oversee the officers assigned with those duties, account for the bulk of unfilled positions among supervisors.
That especially concerned Tony Johnson, a detective sergeant who retired last year. He said sergeants, of which there are currently 249 at the SDPD, “basically run the department.” They’re responsible for monitoring behavior in the field while higher-ranking supervisors mainly review what sergeants report. If sergeants are too busy to notice bad behavior, other supervisors may never hear about it.
Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is a national expert on police accountability practices. He hasn’t been closely following San Diego’s scandal, but when told about the allegations, he questioned whether they represented an institutional problem because the allegations vary by type, degree and location.
Then Walker heard about the two officers charged with sexually assaulting women while on duty. “That raises some serious questions about supervisors at the sergeant level,” Walker said.
Asst. Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who oversees staffing levels across the department, said the breadth of responsibility for supervisors has increased with staffing reductions in recent years. While the total ratio of officers to supervisors hasn’t changed from six years ago, she said how the department operates is more complex since not every sergeant supervises and, among those who do, the number of employees varies.
Asst. Police Chief Boyd Long, who oversees patrol operations, stuck by the statistics and said the breadth of responsibility hasn’t increased. The ratio of supervisors to officers is nearly the same today and the average patrol squad is nearly the same size, too, he said.
To be sure, police officials have long considered the department understaffed for the city’s size. After Lansdowne became chief in 2003, he rolled out a plan to expand the force by 200 officers. But the city has been enveloped in reoccurring financial problems. In the last two years alone, police have lost more than 200 officers.
‘We’re Fairly Low Down on the Wish List’
While Zimmerman and other officers say supervisors in the department are now responsible for overseeing more employees than they used to, Sgt. Garry Collins is one exception. He supervised five people a decade ago. Now it’s one full-time and one part-time employee.
But here’s the twist: Collins runs the department’s Medical Assistance Unit, which is responsible for monitoring the health of employees. The unit was created to act like another layer to detect behavioral issues like stress and help prevent them from developing into misconduct.
“It would be nice if we had sufficient staffing to deal with all the issues and programs that we have,” Collins said, but added, “We’re fairly low down on the wish list when it comes to staffing.”
Collins’ unit has gained public attention recently in the wake of the misconduct allegations. When Lansdowne held a press conference May 10 and correlated rising stress to the recent behavior, the chief was expressing Collins’ assessment that more officers have filed workers compensation claims for hypertension and other heart issues. The department didn’t have statistics available.
At the same time the department has lost human supervisors, it’s brought in a high-tech monitoring system for its officers.
An early warning system in the department that aims to detect performance issues called the Early Intervention and Identification System, or EIIS, was launched in 2008.
The program culls data on performance indicators like on-duty collisions, citizen complaints, internal investigations, use of force and the number of traumatic calls, like the death of a child, that an officer is sent on. The goal is to identify and address a pattern of behavior or stresses before it escalates into misconduct and requires discipline.
Recently, it appears the program has not helped meet that goal. Lansdowne touted an expansion of the EIIS program as one of seven steps that he plans to address bad behavior in the department.
“This is just one resource to assist,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think anyone is saying that this one system is the one that’s going to tell us everything that we need to know.”
The department won a $450,000 federal grant in 2003 to create the program and finished it three years ago. The project was spearheaded by the former head of internal affairs, tossed around the department when she retired and recently landed on Collins’ desk.
“It’s one of those things that probably isn’t being as utilized as it should be, but I’m confident with everything that’s going on that it will be,” Collins said.
Although sergeants are first-level supervisors, the department prohibits them from accessing the early-warning system and gauging the performance indicators of their officers. Police limit this ability to higher-ranking supervisors, citing legal concerns about who views personnel information.
In response to the recent allegations, sergeants will receive more education about what information is collected by the system, but they still won’t be able to access it. “The further training of the Sergeants represents an evolution of the program,” Lansdowne wrote in an email, “and not a mistake.”
Collins and several recently retired officers also questioned the program’s accuracy.
It compares the number of complaints filed against officers but doesn’t take into account differences in their assignments, for example. An officer working crowd control might get more complaints because they’re dealing with more people, not necessarily because they are performing worse.
Although the program is currently run by Collins, much of the data it relies upon to monitor officer performance is also generated by internal affairs, which has been cut in recent years. In response to the wave of allegations, Lansdowne plans to add three or more officers to the unit to help it keep up with complaints and paperwork needed to keep the early warning system updated.
Albert Pearsall, III, works for the U.S. Department of Justice and oversees the program that funded San Diego’s system. He agreed with expanding the system to sergeants, but disagreed that the recent wave of misconduct showed any failings of the concept.
“I don’t see this as a negative,” Pearsall said. “I see it as something that they can work from. The mere fact that they have something to work from is a good thing.”