San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne has said his response to controversy plays a big role in how he’s evaluated. He’s in the thick of an astounding amount of it now, for good and bad.
A major sexual misconduct scandal is ongoing and has prompted a call for an overhaul of the entire department. Alleged criminals in a campaign finance scandal were scheming to oust Lansdowne. Minority community members are up in arms over racial profiling. And Lansdowne’s become the face of a statewide effort to reform drug laws.
Here’s a rundown of what’s going on.
The Sexual Misconduct Scandal
Two years ago, former SDPD officer Anthony Arevalos was convicted of soliciting sexual bribes from five women while on duty. His was the worst in a spate of officer misconduct problems for which Lansdowne promised numerous reforms. Arevalos continues to haunt the city. Arevalos’ final victim, identified as Jane Doe, has a major ongoing lawsuit against Lansdowne and the department alleging police brass failed to act on multiple warning signs about Arevalos’ behavior. Doe is seeking a federal court order for an independent monitor to oversee and reform department operations.
The criminal case against Arevalos has resurfaced, too. This morning, an appeals court is hearing Arevalos’ argument that he deserves a new trial. An SDPD detective on the Arevalos case failed to turn over handwritten notes from Doe to prosecutors, who in turn, failed to turn them over to Arevalos’ defense. Arevalos argues that his civil rights were violated.
News broke Thursday afternoon that another SDPD officer, Chris Hays, is under investigation for four counts of sexual battery after allegations he inappropriately touched women during searches.
The Campaign Finance Scandal
A campaign finance scandal’s wild allegations involve a wealthy Mexican national’s attempt to influence city and federal elections with a half-million dollars in illegal campaign contributions. So far prosecutors have ensnared an ex-cop, a City Hall lobbyist and a political consultant.
For the ex-cop, Lansdowne was allegedly the motive. Ernesto Encinas wanted Lansdowne fired and replaced with a police chief of his own choosing in exchange for the Mexican national’s campaign money, prosecutors say. Lansdowne and the Encinas had sparred over liquor licenses for the downtown bars and nightclubs the cop had represented through his private security firm.
Last week, about two dozen San Diego residents spoke at a City Council committee hearing, angered by incidents where they believe officers racially profiled them.
That followed a letter from more than 40 community leaders and civil rights groups upset the department has failed to follow its own policy to prevent racial bias.
Lansdowne has promised reforms, including overhauling the department’s racial data collection efforts at traffic stops. He also asked the Council for money to provide body cameras to all patrol officers. Details of the reforms will be worked out in the coming months.
Lansdowne also is the face of a big effort to reform California’s drug laws. He’s the co-sponsor, along with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, of a statewide initiative for the November ballot to cut the penalty for some nonviolent drug crimes, including simple possession, from a felony to a misdemeanor. The measure would direct money saved from prisons to fund mental health and substance-abuse treatment programs. Backers need to collect 500,000 signatures before it appears on the ballot.
From U-T San Diego’s Q-and-A with Lansdowne:
This actually is a vehicle to get them the help that they need. You’ve got to deal with the mental health issues. And we’re not doing it now. You know who handles mental health right here in the County of San Diego? It’s the jails that handle mental health, at three o’clock in the morning. … The only person that’s going to show up for families in desperate need of help is a police officer at three in the morning. That’s it. And we have a chance to help that and get real treatment. … There’s such a need for this, and to downsize prisons and upgrade schools, I don’t know how you go wrong with that. I honestly don’t see it.
So Who Is This Guy?
Lansdowne became police chief here 10 years ago after serving as chief in San Jose. Lansdowne commutes downtown every day from his ranch house in Fallbrook. Our 2011 profile of him focused on how often controversy’s on his mind, starting first thing in the morning:
After waking up around 3 a.m., Lansdowne flips on his home computer to scan newspapers and law enforcement journals for the words “police chief.” He says he specifically wants to know how other chiefs handle controversy and learn from their mistakes.
“The underlying theme is being open and getting ahead of the problem,” Lansdowne said in an interview Wednesday. “You’re never judged by the problem. You’re judged by how you handled the problem.”
Lansdowne is 69 years old and became eligible for full retirement from the city in August. He told us at the time that he will give at least six months’ notice before leaving, and that he plans to stick around for a while.