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This is a series of 12 stories to follow in 2012. No. 12: The Chargers; No. 11: The Convention Center; and No. 10: The city of San Diego’s financial problems.

On Friday, as the inappropriate question” but I thought it was pretty reasonable. And trust me, I know when I’ve said something inappropriate. I only wish I could know it before I say it.

One of the most important responsibilities and privileges a mayor has is to appoint the police and fire chiefs.

Both Congressman Bob Filner and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis answered unequivocally “yes.” They would keep Lansdowne. But City Councilman Carl DeMaio and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who has the support of the police officers union, both said they’d wait and see.

See? Interesting, right? Two of them want to protect their flexibility to make a major change. Two of them want to keep a steady hand on top of the most important service the city provides during one of its most trying times in the city’s history.

The San Diego Police Department has faced unimaginable tragedy over the last year. One officer, who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was gunned down randomly in an act of horrifying violence in City Heights. Just days before, an officer committed suicide. Just weeks before that, the son of a longtime and beloved detective allegedly killed her and her daughter.

Another officer died trying to help accident victims on I-15.

I wish I could say it stopped there. It did not. Another officer died riding his motorcycle off duty. Finally, though it wasn’t last year, the department is still reeling from the shooting death of Officer Christopher Wilson in late 2010.

The city deserves great credit for keeping the Police Department together and responsive during such an awful string of tragedies. Has any single organization in the region — besides the Marines — suffered so many blows?

No, because then there was scandal. The chief acknowledged an “unprecedented spike” in police misconduct allegations. Last summer, the department was investigating 11 cases that included accusations of felony drunk driving, domestic violence, excessive force and on-duty rape.

That included the mother of all the scandals: Officer Anthony Arevalos was convicted of soliciting sexual bribes from five women during downtown traffic stops.

If you haven’t taken a few minutes to read Keegan Kyle’s excellent summation of that case, please do. It’s worth it.

Why focus so much on that case?

Well, there’s a reason they make terrifying suspense movies about police officers going rogue. Few things are as scary.

We give police officers tremendous powers and responsibilities. They can detain us. They can even kill us if they decide we’re threatening them or someone else. We’ve decided we can trust them with these powers but only if we hold them accountable.

I can’t imagine the fear a young woman feels if an officer threatens her. Imagine if that were your wife, sister or daughter. And then imagine that it happened, she complained and the department left the officer on duty, only to see other victims suffer the same fate.

That’s what happened and — whoever’s fault it was — it’s unacceptable.

What is the department going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? The answer should be a major plank of any mayoral candidate’s platform.

It’s at least as important as debating police officer pay and benefits. Yet that’s too often what passes as civic discussion about public safety these days.

Now the question has become very simple: Should we offer police guaranteed retirement income, when their shifts end?

The mayor and City Councilman Kevin Faulconer persuaded their colleague, DeMaio, to keep pensions intact for new police officers as they raced to eliminate them completely for every other new employee the city hires, even firefighters. DeMaio later claimed police would soon face the same reform.

Dumanis, who endorsed the plan that emerged, deployed her most passionate rhetoric at Friday’s debate in service of the police officers and their pensions.

It would be devastating and we would be left with “security guards” for police if we eliminate pensions in San Diego, Dumanis said. That might be a stretch.

But the underlying fear isn’t. Again, think of the powers and responsibilities we entrust with police. Not only can they deprive us of life and freedom if they decide it’s necessary, but when someone falls off of a building or when someone is taking their last bloody breaths, it’s often the police who arrive there first.

They are on the front lines between civilization and chaos: They regularly confront the most disgusting, unethical and violent elements of our society. This proximity to corruption and vice can lead some cops to embrace it, to collaborate with it and to become corrupt themselves.

That’s what separates societies that function from those that don’t: Are they able to keep this from happening? Do their public servants act in the public interest? Getting shook down for a bribe is a way of life for much of the world’s population. We only need look a few miles south to Tijuana to understand how important it is to be able to trust our police.

The last thing we need is a population of disgruntled, stressed and unimpressive individuals serving this important role.

To avoid that, we need to recruit the best and most trustworthy individuals to be police officers. We need to reward them for performance and be free to dismiss mediocre officers. We need to relentlessly hold them accountable. They must constantly be demonstrating to us they’re using proven techniques to not only catch criminals but deter crime. They must prove they have superior systems for rooting out corruption and misconduct.

Police services are the most important ones the city provides. Not coincidentally, they take up the most room in the city’s day-to-day budget.

This year, watch these storylines as the city spends that money:

• Will Chief Lansdowne stay? It’s not unimaginable that DeMaio and Fletcher will move on to the final election after June’s primary. Lansdowne had considered retiring but walked back from that as controversy brewed. He clearly is determined to set things right in the department before leaving.

• Staffing and patrols: The Police Officers Association regularly decries the staffing figures for SDPD. Even budgeted positions remain unfilled. At the same time, residents and businesses are finding that if they want services like bike patrols they have to raise money as though public safety were a charitable cause. Even a precinct had to turn to the generosity of donors to repair damage from flooding. Will resources ever support infrastructure and personnel improvements?

• Oversight: Lansdowne changed internal oversight systems to keep police officers in line. Will any new announcements occur this year? Will mayoral candidates offer up suggestions of their own?

• Will they cut off police pensions? Will DeMaio and others continue to work to put new police officers onto 401(k) plans like all other new employees?

At Friday’s debate, DeMaio seemed to step back a bit from the pledge to do this. When asked, he said that the pension reform initiative on the ballot only gives them the opportunity to make this change.

The question is, will they take it?

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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