The Oceanside Police Department / Photo by Megan Wood

With under two months until Oceanside’s police chief is set to retire, residents have raised concerns about the city’s hiring process for his replacement, and the city manager has paused the process to reconsider its approach.

Jason Coker, a reverend at Oceanside Sanctuary, and Dr. Kadri Webb, a pastor at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, met with Oceanside City Manager Deanna Lorson on a Zoom call two weeks ago and learned Lorson planned to limit applications for the new chief to internal candidates and wanted to expedite the hiring process without holding community forums.

Coker, Webb and other leaders of Oceanside community groups are advocating for a search process that’s open to external candidates and public input to address what they see as a culture under exiting Chief Frank McCoy that was unreceptive to community concerns.

“We found McCoy unreceptive to concerns on racial justice issues, so this raises concern that the new chief could continue the same culture,” Coker said. “We want somebody who has not been afraid to tackle those issues and has a track record to bridge the gap between the police department and Oceanside residents, particularly people of color.”

Lorson said she thinks an internal candidate could get up to speed faster than an external hire, but she’s paused the hiring process to consider community input in the coming weeks.

Coker said Lorson has made an effort to be responsive by putting the process on pause and is being professional and accessible in general, but still hasn’t addressed all of their concerns. His group wrote in a press release on Friday that the Oceanside churches are pleased that the process has been paused, but it remains unclear if Lorson intends to adopt the proposed changes or simply tack on a few more weeks before selecting a new chief from a very small pool of internal candidates.

Lorson said she’d like to have replacement lined up by the time McCoy retires, but she is not going to rush the process. McCoy announced his retirement in July, and his last day was set to be in October, but he is considering staying with the department until December.

Coker questions whether Lorson has particular candidates in mind, or if McCoy recommended someone to fill his position. McCoy did not respond to an interview request from Voice of San Diego.

Oceanside is now distributing community surveys to residents, online and in person, asking for input on desired leadership qualities, their feelings on police engagement and the need for police reform in the department.

“We’re not happy,” Coker said. “We don’t think we need a public survey. We need public forums and to open to external candidates.”

McCoy was hired in 2006 through a national search and made over $400,000 in total pay and benefits in 2019, according to Transparent California. He was commander in chief of the Long Beach Police Department prior to his role in Oceanside. Lorson told Voice of San Diego she’s heard some folks mention desire for community forums but is concerned about coronavirus social distancing regulations and said some people may not be comfortable voicing their opinions in a public setting.

Lorson is now pulling together two groups of community panelists to interview candidates and guide her decision, she said, but she plans to keep those groups anonymous until the decision is made, leaving it unclear who is influencing her decision. Coker said the approach lacks transparency, and leaves room for the City Council to influence the process. He said they want someone who has experience tackling racial justice issues and would really like to see somebody who’s open to hearing about changes in the department’s current police tactics and procedures.

Webb, who is Black, volunteered to be on a community panel but hasn’t heard back from Lorson, and said the hiring process builds on existing trust issues between the community and the department.

He and others are pushing for a more open and transparent search process. Webb said this is essential for the police department to try to re-establish community trust exacerbated by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a White police officer in Minneapolis.

“We’re in the middle of what I call a racial pandemic,” Webb said. “We’re are in the middle of a global pandemic, but we’re also in the midst of a racial pandemic where racism is being normalized. So to have a closed search raises questions and gives concerning optics. Why are we not considering other people?”

But concerns over poor police relations in the Oceanside community existed before nationwide civic unrest over racial justice issues peaked this summer. In early 2018 and late 2019, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego teamed up with Oceanside religious and community leaders to gauge perceptions of law enforcement. The report showed a stark difference in experiences with local law enforcement: White residents had a different view of policing than Black and Brown residents.

The vast majority of attendees reported in the Kroc Institute survey having or knowing someone who has had a negative experience with a police officer, although not necessarily Oceanside police, and many community members identified a significant difference in the way that officers reacted to them based on their identity.

In August 2018, a forum in Crown Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Oceanside, was supposed to connect residents and law enforcement officials but instead highlighted ongoing concerns about racial bias in Black and Brown communities and police treatment of mentally ill homeless people. The meeting turned into a referendum on policing versus what clergy leaders expected: open dialogue to bridge the gaps between the community and local police.

Webb previously told Voice of San Diego that during that meeting, McCoy and other police officials talked about some nice things they’ve done like efforts to clean up the riverbed of homeless encampments and an overall reduction in crime but wasn’t open to having a conversation about police officer misconduct complaints. Coker previously told Voice of San Diego that during the meeting McCoy seemed unwilling to even acknowledge that there was a breakdown in trust between police and communities of color. During that meeting, McCoy called for another meeting with religious leaders, and agreed to talk more about the particular needs in their communities.

Max Disposti, executive director of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center in Oceanside, was invited to be on the hiring panel by Lorson and said his group and others in the community shared concerns about the department and discussed creating a citizen’s police oversight committee with McCoy, before he announced his retirement.

His group and others like the North San Diego County NAACP chapter, Oceanside Justice Coalition and the North San Diego County Justice and Equity Coalition are now joining calls for the city manager to open the position to external candidates with a focus on racial and gender equity and to consider community-oriented Oceanside Police Department lieutenants who they say are “qualified, attentive, transparent and reflect the diversity of Oceanside.” They’re seeking online public workshops for residents to share their priorities for the next chief, public disclosure of the participants involved in the process and clarity on how community input will be used in the decision-making process.

“There was this concern they wouldn’t go outside to hire a police chief,” Disposti said. “It’s such an important position and we really want there to be community input and make sure the community is comfortable with the person hired in that position.” Disposti said he’s disappointed McCoy announced his decision to retire just after hearing from those groups about their concerns with the department.

He said the city manager invited him to be on a review panel in October to represent the LGBTQ community in Oceanside but hasn’t heard back on details. He’s unaware of who else is on the panel and how much influence the panels will have on the process.

“It doesn’t do the police department justice. Imagine hiring someone without being properly vetted and now this person comes in and has to work three times as hard to be accepted by the community. There are already tensions in the community between this police department; this is the wrong step,” Disposti said.

Alongside racial justice issues, Disposti said his top concerns are the department’s response to social services and mental health issues and lack of diversity of the police department’s staff. Disposti told Voice of San Diego he takes issue with the way homeless people with mental illnesses and queer youth displaced from their homes are treated by law enforcement in Oceanside.

He and other community leaders wrote in a press release on Thursday that an internal hire leaves no opportunity for any non-White and/or female candidate for chief of police.

“It’s the tradition of OPD to not to be diverse especially in leadership so here we are in a diverse community of Oceanside and a combined number of minority groups yet interviewing captains who are primarily White and male with no considering we need someone who look like the community we’re in,” Disposti said.

I asked Lorson if she plans to consider diversity of racial backgrounds in the hiring process. She said she’ll do that in part by making the community panels diverse and representative of the Oceanside community and listening to their feedback.

There’s no current timeline on when the next chief of police will be hired, Lorson said.

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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