Members of Oceanside’s neighborhood enhancement team talk to residents in the Crown Heights neighborhood. / Photo by Jesse Marx
Members of Oceanside’s neighborhood enhancement team talk to residents in the Crown Heights neighborhood. / Photo by Jesse Marx

A forum last week in Crown Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Oceanside, was supposed to connect residents with law enforcement officials so they could learn more about what local authorities do. Instead, it turned into a referendum on policing — so tense, in fact, that officers ultimately walked out.

The awkward end to the forum as well as a recent survey conducted in Oceanside shine a light on the poor state of police relations in North County’s most populous city.

In late 2018 and early 2019, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego teamed up with religious and community leaders in Oceanside to gauge perceptions of law enforcement throughout the city, with an emphasis on the Crown Heights neighborhood. What the Building Trust Partnership found wasn’t necessarily surprising: The view of policing among the city’s white residents and residents of color are radically different.

What stands out in the report are some of the individual responses from anonymous residents of Crown Heights. Collectively they painted a troubling picture.

One person reported seeing an officer kick a homeless person on the ground while that homeless person was overdosing. Another complained that police hadn’t shown up to a shooting but arrived seven or eight cars deep to inspect a family party.

Some said they’d been stopped without good reason while walking or driving, and were asked insulting questions based on their ethnicity and poor English skills. One said a police officer had explained, “[I] couldn’t believe a Mexican like [you] could have a truck like that.” Others claimed to have been threatened with deportation.

It’s unclear when such an incident took place, but a 2018 California law prohibits local police, in many circumstances, from acting as an arm of federal immigration authorities.

Still, several of the people surveyed said they wanted more from OPD, not less. They wanted their local police to be more communicative and to explain what steps they were taking to reduce racial bias and excessive force.

Lt. Ignacio Lopez, who oversees the neighborhood enhancement team, acknowledged that there’s a lack of trust within Crown Heights and that bias may be a cause of that. But he said the department is actively trying to do better and to engage more people who have negative views of police officers.

“It’s a big cultural change we’re trying to accomplish, and it’s unfortunate the wheels are turning a bit slower than we’d like,” he said.

As proof, Lopez cited OPD’s youth mentoring programs through local schools and courses that show Spanish-speaking students how the department works. The city also hosts a regular coffee meet-up, but the residents who attend those probably already have positive views of policing and are more willing to talk to law enforcement face to face.

“I could see how somebody who’s not a documented citizen would be reluctant to have coffee with a cop,” he said. “There are barriers there we’re trying to overcome, but some things are inherent in the culture.”

Even so, some of the community leaders who’ve tried to help OPD improve its relations with residents have walked away from those attempts disappointed.

The Building Trust Partnership has been holding similar forums around the county and found law enforcement officials in Chula Vista, San Diego and elsewhere more accommodating.

“We tried to establish a similar collaborative relationship with the Oceanside Police Department,” said Daniel Orth, program officer at the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, “but never achieved the same level of partnership as we have with other county law enforcement agencies.”

Two members of the local clergy who were involved in the Oceanside survey met early on with Police Chief Frank McCoy and his staff in hopes that they would participate and be receptive to the community’s ongoing concerns over racial bias and treatment of mentally ill homeless people. Both religious leaders told me that they found the tone of the conversation defensive, even dismissive at times.

“We were played,” said Kadri Webb, pastor at St. John Missionary Baptist Church. “The police chief did all the talking.”

Webb remembered McCoy saying his hands were tied on some issues, like police officer misconduct complaints. Instead, OPD’s leadership talked about efforts to clean up the riverbed of homeless encampments — although the city has dedicated homeless outreach staff, there were at least 1,000 arrests last year — and pointed to overall reductions in crime.

“They talked about some nice things they’ve done, but we weren’t there to talk about that,” Webb said. “We were there to talk about fostering better relations.”

Jason Coker, pastor at Oceanside Sanctuary Church, was also present in the room. He said McCoy responded to the group’s concerns by arguing that his department was understaffed and underfunded — something Coker agrees with.

But McCoy also “made it clear that there wasn’t much more the police could do,” Coker said. To him, McCoy seemed unwilling to even acknowledge that there was a breakdown in trust between the police and communities of color.

McCoy did, however, call for another meeting with religious leaders after that one, and they all agreed to meet regularly and talk more about the particular needs of their communities. They also shared a list of contacts and resources available for the homeless.

OPD has openly acknowledged breakdowns of trust in the past and worked to improve them.

In 2006, officer Dan Bessant was shot in the back while assisting another officer at a traffic stop in an area that borders the back gate of Camp Pendleton. He later died. Two teens were arrested and charged as adults. One was convicted and another took a plea deal — both received life in prison.

Investigators determined that at least one of the teens wanted to kill a cop to gain the respect of his fellow Samoan gang members. A third suspect was arrested in 2018 after police said new evidence of his involvement had surfaced. He took a plea deal and a judge sentenced him to 25 years in jail.

Bessant had been a part of the city’s neighborhood policing team, which worked with code enforcement to identify property violations in need of abatement. Some families in the Mesa Margarita neighborhood felt that he’d been targeting them personally.

After the shooting, city officials joined forces with the Oceanside Samoan Cultural Committee to help launch a program called Save Our Streets. It has included live music, skits and testimonies from ex-gang members over the years.

One of the organizers of the Crown Heights survey told me that Bessant’s death kept coming up in conversations, but in a different light. Some residents felt that police relations had worsened since 2006 — that officers had started treating them more harshly after Bessant was murdered.

“My sense is that the trust that has been built over the last 15 years with [Samoan] communities has not translated into the Hispanic community and black community,” Coker said.

Last weekend’s forum in Crown Heights would suggest so.

Oscarin Ortega, the CEO of Lived Experiences, which connects kids at risk of joining gangs with mentors, told me that OPD officers regularly come to community meetings but they never offer much beyond “please call 911.” It might help build trust, he said, if OPD’s top leaders showed up and assured people that they could cooperate with investigations and be protected while they’re in a vulnerable state.

“People don’t want to fight police,” Ortega said. “We want to stop the stabbings. We’re not the enemy.”

The only member of the audience to defend OPD was Veto Basulto, a student at Oceanside High School. The work of a police officer is difficult, he said, and many suffer themselves from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another resident in the room responded: “I don’t care.”

After the forum concluded, Basulto told me that he comes from a military family, so he sympathizes with cops. He’d also gone on a ride-along with the officers who’d walked out of the room when the discussion got tense.

“I know them,” Basulto said. “They helped me through some issues.”

As the room began to filter back out into the neighborhood, Alejandro Zermeño, a probation department division chief, stood on the grass of the Crown Heights Community Resource Center talking to Ortega and others. Zermeño acknowledged that the frustration in the room that night was real and justified.

“We need to spend more time in this community,” he said, but he stressed that he and his colleagues in law enforcement couldn’t if no one invites them.

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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