A mural outside of the Oceanside Police Department / Photo by Megan Wood

The Oceanside Police Department’s leadership ranks are overwhelmingly White and male, and community members voiced concerns in a recent city survey about the extent to which police staff matches the makeup of the city.

The survey results, combined with department staffing data provided by the city, shed light on continuing tensions created by the city’s initial decision to only consider internal candidates to replace retiring Police Chief Frank McCoy. Following criticism of that decision, and the results of the survey collected to help address concerns, City Manager Deanna Lorson reversed course and announced an open recruitment process in a letter to the City Council last month.

One reason Oceanside community leaders have been insistent that the department expand its search for a new police chief is because of the lack of diversity within the department’s current leadership.

“We see officers of color, but not in leadership. Kids need to see officers that look like them and need to see it’s a fair and equitable place,” said Satia Austin, president of the North County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Of 40 leadership roles in the department, including McCoy’s position, two are currently held by women and 30 are held by White officers. That includes three captains, two White and one Hispanic; nine lieutenants: six White, one Hispanic, one Black and one Asian or Pacific Islander; and 27 sergeants, 21 White, five Hispanic and one American Indian or Alaskan Native, according to data from the city clerk’s office.

The department as a whole is also more White and male than the city’s population, but some racial groups are much better represented among rank-and-file officers than they are in leadership. Out of 174 sworn Oceanside Police Department officers, including police recruits, nearly 63 percent are White and 88 percent are men. Of other racial groups, 19.5 percent of officers are Hispanic, 9 percent of officers are Asian or Pacific Islander, 6 percent of officers are Black, 1.7 percent of officers are American Indian or Alaskan Native officers and one officer has more than one ethnicity, according to data from the city clerk’s office.

More women are represented in the department’s non-sworn officers, a group that includes several clerical roles and positions including evidence technicians, and members of a beach safety team. Out of 78 of those officers, nearly 90 percent are women. In total, 65 percent of those officers are White, 19 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, 2.6 percent are Black and 2.6 percent are American Native or Alaskan Indian.

Nearly 35 percent of Oceanside residents, meanwhile, identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 48 percent of people identify as White and non-Hispanic, 7.6 percent are Asian, 5.6 percent are two or more races, 4.7 percent are Black, 0.7 percent are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and .6 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native alone, according to census data.

“I would like to see more outreach with communities of color. I would also like to see see (sic) more racial and ethnic diversity on the force,” one survey respondent wrote.

“The Oceanside Police Department needs to reflect the wide diversity of the residents in which police officers serve. It is extremely critical for the Department to be sensitive to the cultural, social, gender specific, and racial diversity which exists within the city of Oceanside,” another wrote.

The Survey Results

The city’s survey invited residents to share concerns about the department in order to guide Lorson’s efforts in selecting the next chief, according to the executive summary of the survey.

The 1,431 respondents – 85 percent of whom percent who identified as Oceanside residents, and 10 percent of whom identified as Oceanside business owners – said the top three qualities they want from the next police chief are personal integrity, a good listener and communicator and community leadership.

They identified the most significant public safety concerns as homeless- or transient-related problems, gang activity and burglaries and theft. Notably, one of the top activities respondents said they wanted to see the department take part in was an internal reform – use-of force and de-escalation training – as well as homeless outreach, gang policing and addressing domestic violence and abuse.

One question in the survey asked residents whether they believed the Oceanside Police Department specifically required reforms; 47 percent of respondents said yes. Of those respondents, 26 percent said new and revised training protocols are required, 12 percent said services and funds should be allocated or transferred to entities outside of OPD, 7 percent called for increased community participation and a citizen oversight committee and the same amount called for enhanced communication and trust-building.

Peter Hasapopoulos, the lead organizer for the San Diego Organizing Project, a group of local congregations, and Judah Coker from The Oceanside Sanctuary, wrote in a press release on Nov. 5 that nearly half of the survey respondents want reform rather than the status quo, but that their group believes the status quo is more likely to continue if the next chief comes from within the department.

“We need more transparency at the top, ability to listen to concern and act upon. Often, we are talked to not with and this initial recruitment process has shown how the Police and City leadership had initially intended this process to be: closed, minimum participation and inputs, rushing through hiring,” one person wrote.

“Increasing training on de-escalation tactics would be an excellent start. Hiring a police chief with a strong social justice mentality and commitment to engaging with the community would increase public trust in our police force,” another wrote.

“Racial justice and anti-racial bias is a must to be considered. Biases develop through multiple sources so an active effort must be undertaken to train law enforcement. Police serve the community, community concerns should be important and valued over others. Use of force (if has to be used) has to be used impartially and ONLY if other de-escalation options fail,” another wrote.

On the other hand, many respondents praised the department for keeping the community safe and said the department’s budget shouldn’t be reduced at all. And 61 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with Oceanside police, 7 percent said they were unsatisfied and 31 percent said they were neutral.

“OPD is almost perfect. Some officers need to practice de-escalation,” one person wrote.

“Overall I have not witnessed or experienced issues with our police force. All of the officers I have come I contact with have been friendly and fair,” another wrote.

Of those who said they were unsatisfied with the department, their most prevalent responses were unsatisfaction of services provided by OPD, their lack of community involvement and connection, harassment or rudeness, and racial profiling.

Jason Coker, a pastor at the The Oceanside Sanctuary, said it has been helpful that such an overwhelming number of respondents who said the Oceanside Police Department could stand to improve. But Coker and others still took issue with the survey itself.

The group criticized the fact that the survey didn’t directly ask respondents whether they believe the search for the next chief should be expanded outside the department, nor did it ask for respondents’ demographic information. Without that, the group wrote, “it is impossible to know how many people of color responded.”

“Our own experience is White residents overwhelmingly have positive reviews of the department and people of color residents have negative responses,” Coker said. “It’s not Oceanside overall that has issues with the department, but people of color having issues with the department.”

Coker and the San Diego Organizing Project also took issue with how the city only gathered responses from six Spanish-speaking residents of the total 1,431 respondents, which they believe means many in neighborhoods like Crown Heights weren’t surveyed.

“This number is greatly out of alignment with the percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers in the city … this places into question whether the survey succeeded in capturing a representative sample of residents, especially those most likely to have negative interactions with police,” the group wrote.

In addition to racial diversity, Max Disposti, executive director of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center, told Voice of San Diego he also wants to see more officers in leadership who identify with the LGBTQ+ community.

Moving Forward

Now, Lorson and the city’s human resources director have tapped consultant Joel Bryden to handle recruitment efforts, according to a letter Lorson wrote to the City Council on Nov. 18.

Lorson wrote that the city is working with Bryden on the recruitment process and once a list of finalists is developed, candidates will be evaluated through an interview process that will include a professional panel of police chiefs and city manager from other jurisdictions, a city panel of department directions who work closely with the Oceanside Police Department and community panels with representatives of minority groups including LGBTQ, business groups, the faith community, schools and city commissions.

The process that will take up to 16 weeks, Lorson wrote, and in the meantime, she will interview current police captains to take on the role of interim police chief upon McCoy’s retirement on Dec. 28. Lorson told Voice of San Diego the recruitment schedule anticipates the interview happening in mid-February and prior to that time she will announce what groups are represented on the community panels.

“In conducting the recruitment, I will be looking for a Chief that has demonstrated strong community relationships and a thorough understanding of the City’s diversity and can build on OPD’s track record while also providing a fresh look to ensure that OPD is continually providing outstanding service to the community,” Lorson wrote in her memo to the City Council.

Coker said it’s heartening that Lorson took feedback from community groups and survey respondents to heart and decided to open the search to a broader pool, but he and others are still concerned she hasn’t agreed to hold online public workshops, especially in Spanish, for residents to share their concerns, values and priorities. He said he’d also like to see her make the identity of all the people advising her transparent before the selection of a new chief so residents know who is influencing the decision.

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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