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San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne had survived many days over the past decade where scandal enveloped the city.
Tuesday, though, was different.
News broke an officer had been arrested for DUI. Then a judge tossed out the most serious criminal sexual misconduct convictions against former officer Anthony Arevalos, blaming an SDPD detective’s failure to turn over crucial evidence in the case. Then a lawyer representing Arevalos’ final victim argued in federal court that the chief had overseen a department rife with misconduct and cover-ups.
“It is clear that Chief Lansdowne is a chief out of control,” Attorney Joseph Dicks argued within a few hours of Lansdowne’s announcement he was leaving the department.
Lansdowne’s exit comes amid an officer sexual misconduct scandal that has forced him to seek an outside audit of the department. Lansdowne told the Los Angeles Times that scandal didn’t push him out of his job. But up until recently, Lansdowne had made it clear he wanted to stick around.
Just a week ago, he told the press he wanted to lead SDPD through the latest round of controversy. He told Voice of San Diego last August that he’d give at least six months’ notice before retiring. But his decision to leave was ultimately so abrupt that it wasn’t immediately clear whether he had actually resigned or retired. Reporters milled outside police headquarters Tuesday afternoon waiting for a press conference with details that never came.
The city’s mayor-elect, Kevin Faulconer, met with Lansdowne and discussed his eventual departure, but did not ask for his resignation.
“The decision to resign was the chief’s and the chief’s alone,” Faulconer said after the news came out. Then Faulconer, like most city political figures have always done, praised Lansdowne’s tenure as chief.
Indeed, crime declined by more than one-third while under Lansdowne, and is now among the lowest it’s been since the 1960s. San Diego routinely tops national lists of the safest big cities in America. Lansdowne accomplished that while facing severe budget cuts that reduced officers’ pay and eliminated many of the civilian employees who worked alongside the sworn ranks. San Diego has long had one of the lowest-staffed police forces in the country, and last year Lansdowne won Council approval for a five-year plan to invest tens of millions of dollars in the department.
Even some who represented citizens who accused Lansdowne’s officers of committing misconduct believed Lansdowne was honest, sincere and tried to be transparent.
“Unfortunately, he’s paying the price for scandals that occurred during his tenure, and I don’t know that he’s entirely responsible for them,” civil rights attorney Gene Iredale told KPBS.
That kind of praise used to buoy Lansdowne through scandals.
Lansdowne became chief in 2003, just before a pension scandal forced one mayor to resign. He endured as a new mayor determined to clean house arrived, and beyond during ex-Mayor Bob Filner’s brief scandal-plagued tenure, even though Filner and others were allegedly angling to get rid of him.
In between, Lansdowne looked to have survived a scandal of his own. Eleven of his officers had been accused of serious on-duty problems, including the sexual misconduct allegations against Arevalos, in a seven-month period stretching to May 2011. Lansdowne promised a raft of reforms. Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council did nothing but praise him in response.
At the height of those misconduct allegations in 2011, Lansdowne said he embraced controversy. Police chiefs, he said, aren’t judged by problems. They’re judged by how they respond to problems.
When it came to light last month that the department wasn’t following its own rules to prevent racial profiling, Lansdowne promised to overhaul the city’s policies and proposed outfitting all patrol officers with body cameras. When the misconduct scandal re-emerged earlier this month as another officer was charged with on-duty sexual misconduct, Lansdowne proposed the external audit. When allegations of sexual misconduct hit one more officer last week, the chief publicly announced he was investigating.
Then Tuesday happened.
Despite the scandal, Lansdowne told the Los Angeles Times he’s leaving the department “in very good shape. We’ve got very good leadership and for the first time in 10 years we’re going to be able to rebuild the department.”
But that job will be left to someone else.
Lisa Halverstadt contributed reporting.