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The San Diego Police Department’s inability to recruit and retain police officers doesn’t stem from the increased media scrutiny on policing, the problem comes from within the SDPD. Until the department changes its culture and internal climate, the problems will persist.
The SDPD needs a boost in morale, and new leadership that will inspire young police officers. The department has suffered some blows, including police officers being convicted of misconduct, the department being sued for racism by one of its own and being found to have racial disparities in traffic stops. It’s hard for young officers to seek to be employed by SDPD and remain in the department with this kind of negative publicity.
San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman must take personal responsibility for the failures of the SDPD not being able to recruit and retain an adequate number of police officers. She must not only be able to help communities solve their problems, but she must also be effective in solving problems within her own department. When Zimmerman switches the blame on media and others, it thwarts SDPD’s ability to identify the real problems.
The SDPD must become the leader in rebuilding trust with all communities by seriously transforming its practices. When a white person sees a police officer, they feel safe and protected. Sometimes when a person of color sees a police officer, especially younger black men, they can feel threatened. This must change. The recent racial profiling report bears this out. We are not all being treated the same. The SDPD must acknowledge these racial disparities, and hire and train officers who will share the values of the communities they serve. When all community members are treated with dignity and respect, they will in return recognize peace officers as legitimate, which will create healthy relationships and build bridges of trust between officers and communities; especially communities of color.
If officers felt respected and honored by their leaders and the communities they serve, their jobs would be easier, making retention more feasible. That won’t happen until the culture and practices are changed within the SDPD.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer must be transparent and assure us that when Zimmerman retires, he will not try to find a loophole to keep her. As required by the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, Zimmerman must retire by March 1 next year as she has signed up to do, and the mayor must make sure that she does. While we appreciate Zimmerman’s service, as top cop, she had her opportunity to build community trust (especially in communities of color), bring change, stability, boost morale and fix the recruitment and retention problem within the department. It’s time to let another leader take the helm and launch new policies and initiatives meant to tackle these issues head-on.
If the city of San Diego wants to become the leader in recruiting and retaining police officers, the mayor and City Council can begin by conducting a national search to hire a police chief who has proven experience in successfully recruiting and retaining officers, and transforming cultures within public safety systems that inspires and brings people together.
Also, SDPD must become the leader in having the best pay and benefits in California in order to retain officers trained by the academies for which our taxes pay. There is no need to have one of the best training academies and testing processes that are difficult to pass, and then give officers a pay and benefit package that isn’t as good as it can be. Those officers who accept employment with SDPD are going to leave once they get a better offer.
The SDPD can become the role model for other law enforcement agencies by adopting a framework called HEAT, which puts a focus on hiring, equipment, accountability and training.
First and foremost, SDPD needs to change how and who it hires – hire people likely to de-escalate, not those who are likely to be aggressive. And we need to hire more diverse officers. Recent research shows, for example, that female officers are more likely to resolve conflict peacefully.
How we equip these new hires is also important – do we arm them with Tasers, pepper spray or some other new technology that decreases officer-involved shootings?
Then there’s accountability. The Community Review Board on Police Practices, a civilian review board that reviews complaints against officers, doesn’t have enough power and teeth. SDPD needs an independent, fully budgeted and staffed, subpoena-empowered panel that can readily and quickly do independent investigations of citizen complaints so we weed out the bad hires and keep the best and brightest.
And SDPD needs to get serious about introducing additional and recurring training programs that address implicit bias, mental health, de-escalation and other issues police officers are facing.
If the SDPD leadership implemented the HEAT framework, and transformed its culture and practices, it would lead to better recruitment and retention.
Cornelius Bowser is a bishop at Charity Apostolic Church. Bowser’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here