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Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

As his first official act before he was even sworn in as mayor, Kevin Faulconer tapped a new police chief, just days after the chief at the time announced his intention to retire.

“The San Diego Police Department needs leadership now,” Faulconer said at a press conference announcing he’d chosen Shelley Zimmerman.

It was a swift, decisive move, and it suggested Faulconer was poised to take a leading role on policing and the many issues facing the department.

But by the time Faulconer ran for re-election in 2016, his opponents were criticizing him for what they perceived as a failure to lead on police matters during his years at City Hall. They pointed to a shortage of officers and dispatchers that resulted in long delays for 911 calls.

Faulconer would go on to make improvements in both categories, spearheading a considerable pay raise to bring San Diego Police Department pay in line with others across the state.

When it comes to the terms Faulconer set for himself on policing and public safety — predominantly hiring, pay and retention, which were seen as worthy causes at the time even among progressives — he was largely successful. But other metrics paint a different picture.

At least four separate studies or analyses during Faulconer’s tenure as mayor have found racial profiling amid police stops. On a number of policing issues, from the release of body camera footage of controversial incidents to revelations that SDPD’s crime lab watered down rape kit testing standards and that officers were using a century-old law to punish speech, Faulconer has been notably silent.

Put another way: Police officers themselves are happy with Faulconer’s record on policing. Many of the people who experience policing from the other end — particularly Black San Diegans — are not.

The reforms he championed over the course of his seven years in office were often noncontroversial. He’s talked about standards while many others talk about outcomes.

As Faulconer steps down as mayor and considers a run for governor in 2022, Black leaders expressed a sense of disappointment over how his tenure turned out, and particularly noted his support this year for Proposition 20. The statewide ballot measure failed but would have undone some of the major criminal justice reforms in recent years and required DNA collection for non-violent misdemeanors.

Faulconer’s director of communications, Craig Gustafson, blocked Voice of San Diego from interviewing the mayor after Voice of San Diego declined to change a headline at the request of mayoral staff.

“Your position, however, means that we will not be able to accommodate Jesse’s request for an interview on policing,” Gustafson wrote to VOSD managing editor Sara Libby. Instead, he agreed to respond to questions in writing.

Gustavo Portela, Faulconer’s senior press secretary, wrote in an email that the police department Faulconer inherited was political and embroiled in scandal, but the chiefs he nominated to lead it were responsive to the community, worked to enhance reforms internally and helped keep the city among the safest in the country.

“The mayor’s leadership philosophy includes hiring exceptional people, providing clear expectations and empowering them to make decisions in their areas of responsibility,” Portela said.

‘He Stayed in a Safe Zone’

In the 2013 special election and 2016 election, the Republican from Point Loma did surprisingly well in Democrat-heavy southeastern San Diego. Both times, he earned more support in neighborhoods like Encanto and Paradise Hills than he did citywide, pulling in as much as 60-70 percent at some polling stations.

“We appreciated the fact his door was always made available,” said Bishop William Benson of the Total Deliverance Worship Center.

Benson was part of a faith-based advisory group that met regularly with the mayor and on short notice in cases of emergency. The gatherings served as a bridge between Faulconer’s office and the city’s Black community, creating an opportunity for clergy to bend his ear on matters not just related to policing.

In the end, Benson said, Faulconer was a risk-averse leader — “he stayed in a safe zone” — but the group was able to keep the pressure on him to more readily produce body-worn camera footage in high-profile use-of-force cases and ban the carotid restraint, a chokehold that renders people unconscious, a reform SDPD implemented in response to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

“The carotid restraint has been around a while, hurting Black people,” Benson said. “He took advantage of the situation when it was timely, and it needed to be done, but it needed to be done decades ago.”

Indeed, activists had been pushing SDPD to stop using the carotid restraint for years because it can lead to serious injury and death. The defense for continuing to use the chokehold came not from Faulconer, who oversees the Police Department, but from a lieutenant. Yet in June of this year, with civil unrest growing across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd, Faulconer joined Police Chief David Nisleit at a press conference to announce the change. Every police agency in the county followed suit.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The direct line of communication wasn’t extended to everyone. Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP San Diego Branch, said she pitched the mayor on monthly meetings in 2019 to talk about racial tensions, and a lack of diversity in city government, but it never happened.

“He met with the clergy, which is great, but they don’t have boots on the ground,” she said.

To get to the mayor, Black leaders often went through one of his community liaisons, which they perceived as just more cover.

“We had a mayor who decided to run the city by press conference,” Maxwell said. “He never wanted to connect with anyone he felt unsafe with.”

Bishop Cornelius Bowser of Charity Apostolic Church had similar complaints. He said he attended one of the faith-based advisory meetings early on and criticized it as “a dog and pony show.” At the meeting, according to a memo he shared with the group, Bowser unsuccessfully pitched the mayor through the group on a summer nights program for kids at risk of gang violence, and town hall meetings to talk more broadly about Black and Brown issues in southeastern neighborhoods and City Heights.

Bowser said he believed his public criticisms had something to do with the poor reception he received.

In 2016, he wrote an op-ed for the Voice & Viewpoint, a local Black newspaper, calling on Black pastors to sever their ties to the mayor. He later boycotted a gathering in Balboa Park that brought together politicians, police and religious leaders after three officers were killed

“I will not let Mayor Faulconer use me as a pawn for his political agenda during this time of tragedy,” Bowser said on social media.

Ken Marlborough, a retired deputy fire chief and chair of the Encanto Planning Committee, faulted Faulconer for being quiet on many major police issues. But Marlborough also credited the mayor for sending anyone at all to local meetings to solicit feedback.

“I don’t remember that happening before,” he said. “It was a good thing because we were getting information from his office rather than just relying on the news media.”

Portela, the mayor’s senior press secretary, wrote that he took the concerns of the Black community seriously and was proud of his regular meetings with clergy and others.

“Mayor Faulconer made it a point to make himself or a member of his staff available to meet with community leaders and constituents because he’s a problem-solver and knows that these conversations lead to real solutions,” Portela said.

Nisleit declined an interview through a spokesman. Zimmerman didn’t return a request for comment.

Hiring and Retention

The city’s attempts to improve police hiring and retention — arguably Faulconer’s biggest public safety achievement — predate his time as mayor. While he was on the City Council in 2012, officials greenlit a $142 million plan to double the number of recruits and academies, as a large portion of SDPD’s workforce was nearing retirement age.

Within a few years, though, some of the same officials were questioning whether the investments had been worth it. As mayor, Faulconer was front and center in the push for higher wages in December 2017 as a way to keep more cops around.

But at least one of the arguments he and others made — that SDPD was losing officers to other departments — was exaggerated. An auditor’s report released this year showed that the quit rate among sworn police officers was not as bad as officials had portrayed it. A wave of retirements and a lack of new hires were threatening to deplete the ranks. The underlying assumption behind the wage increase was that police deter crime — more badges mean fewer arrests. Crime rates, though, have been dropping in San Diego for at least two decades, according to a Voice of San Diego review of FBI data. Since Faulconer took over the mayor’s role in 2014, many categories of crimes, including violent ones, have held steady, even as the department roster increased.

Portela pushed back on those points. “The data has proven that when officers are offered competitive pay, they stay,” he wrote. He shared a staffing update from Nov. 30 showing that fewer officers are leaving today than three years ago.

The auditor’s report, published in April, left open the possibility that SDPD would be smaller today if the mayor and City Council hadn’t intervened in 2017.

“The real question here,” Portela said, “is what would have happened if the City had done nothing to address the issue?”

Report After Report Finds Racial Profiling

Faulconer has had considerably less to say about data consistently showing that police officers pull over Black and Latino residents at a disproportionately higher rate than Whites, even though they are found with contraband less often. One study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University found evidence of bias but watered down the final version of their analysis. The city then fought to keep its drafts private, arguing that the disclosures “would likely increase community tension and discontent.”

When pressed on the issue in an email last week, Portela said an independent analysis of stop data is being conducted by the Center for Policing Equity and is expected to be released in early 2021. But he noted that the department has acknowledged the earlier findings and has made changes.

He pointed to the Gang Suppression Team, which was transformed into the Special Operations Unit and expanded citywide “to assist various investigative units in identifying, investigating, and arresting individuals involved in acts of violence by utilizing a proactive approach that stresses intelligence-led policing over stop-driven saturation patrols,” he said. “It is anticipated that vehicle and pedestrian stops stemming from SOU operations will be reduced following this change and may also produce less complaints.”

Under Faulconer’s watch, SDPD also brought back the Professional Standards Unit, which works inside the city to investigate allegations of misconduct within the ranks. Former Police Chief Bill Lansdowne quietly disbanded the team in the early 2000s, citing budget constraints.

Its revival came in response to a U.S. Department of Justice-supported study following a series of high-profile arrests of officers accused of sexual assault and domestic violence. Faulconer was supportive of bringing the unit back, but it was one of the 40 recommendations proposed by an outside think tank, all of which were accepted internally.

Over Faulconer’s tenure, the reforms came in stops and starts, without much follow-up, and typically in response to some high-profile event designed to bring the temperature of the city down.

Silence on High-Profile Policing Issues

Policing issues have dominated the discourse both nationally and locally throughout Faulconer’s tenure. Yet he’s largely declined to weigh in on any of them, even as major incidents played out across the city.

Some of those include:

  • San Diego was one of the first major U.S. cities to equip its officers with body-worn cameras, yet Faulconer deferred to Zimmerman as a debate raged throughout the city over the exact circumstances that should warrant release of footage. In one case, the city fought the release of security camera footage that captured an SDPD officer shooting and killing an unarmed, mentally ill man. Faulconer took a backseat in that discussion even as the city poured resources into fighting the release of the footage and media outlets across the city joined a successful legal effort to unseal it.
  • San Diego was singled out by a 2014 state audit as one of three major police agencies in California that analyzed only about half of the rape kits in its possession — a revelation that led to a high-profile debate among two of San Diego’s top law enforcement officials about how rape kits should be processed. Faulconer declined to weigh in on the dispute publicly, even though the revelation that SDPD’s crime lab had watered down its testing standards in order to artificially clear the backlog of untested kits was so explosive it eventually led to the exit of the crime lab director. Faulconer did not speak out publicly, but Portela said Faulconer spoke to the chief about it. He also noted that “all 1,784 historical kits were delivered to the contracted lab earlier this year for testing and results are received each month for further investigation by the SDPD Sex Crimes Unit.”
  • In 2014, the district attorney filed charges against several men under an obscure criminal statute, arguing that they were connected to a series of shootings for allegedly knowing the gang members involved. Two of the men involved, Aaron Harvey and Brandon Duncan, even though there was no evidence connecting them to the violence, faced life in prison for little more than rap lyrics and Facebook posts. Even as the case drew national scrutiny and intense community pushback, Faulconer stood on the sidelines. Two judges tossed the cases, and the City Council approved a legal settlement for the two men earlier this year totaling $1.4 million.
  • Faulconer did not speak publicly about a statewide investigation that showed dozens of law enforcement officers in San Diego County have themselves been convicted of crimes. The investigation found that one SDPD officer who knocked his wife unconscious, for example, remains on the force.
  • A Voice of San Diego investigation in 2020 revealed SDPD had been using a century-old law banning seditious language to punish citizens for legally protected speech. Reaction to the story was swift and immediate: The department said it would stop using the law, and the City Council moved quickly to wipe it from the books. Faulconer did not speak publicly about it. Portela said Faulconer supported the change but did not speak with the chief about it directly, “given the San Diego Police Department had already been in close contact with the city attorney to repeal the ordinance.”
  • Faulconer did take a side this summer in favor of a surveillance ordinance, encouraging officials to quickly pass it so that the police department could get back to using its network of streetlight cameras. But Faulconer had a chance to write something himself. In January, his staff proposed language that the city’s Public Safety Committee shot down for being too narrow. Instead, a city councilwoman and group of community members and tech experts offered a more comprehensive reform that extended to all devices capable of watching and listening to the public.

High Marks From the Police Union

The most glowing assessment of Faulconer’s tenure on policing came from the police union, which is grateful for the pay increases approved years ago and sees it as a way to keep the pool of applicants competitive. In the midst of calls to defund the police in June, officials argued that they couldn’t, in part, because of the financial commitments they’d already made to officers.

“When it came to rebuilding the department, he was very helpful to getting our numbers up,” said Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman is sworn in by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer in at City Hall. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Schaeffer credited the mayor for avoiding what he described as “knee-jerk” reactions during the social unrest over the summer and for holding the line against defunding demands. Schaeffer disagreed with the decision to ban the carotid restraint, he said, but understood why it needed to be done. Generally, Schaeffer’s been supportive of reforms over the years, including an emphasis on de-escalation in the police manual, supportive of the mayor’s approach, which takes into consideration the realities of police work from the police, and for picking the right leadership.

Faulconer nominated two police chiefs over his time as mayor: Zimmerman then Nisleit, both of whom had risen through the ranks within SDPD.

“For the most part, he lets the chief run the department,” Schaeffer said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this post misstated the year Faulconer took office; it was 2014. An earlier version of this post mischaracterized a meeting Cornelius Bowser attended with faith-based groups; the mayor was not in attendance.

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