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

Responding to community feedback last summer, Oceanside city manager Deanna Lorson opened up the search for the Police Department’s new chief and wound up settling on five candidates for the final review. Four of them hailed from other places.

In the end, though, the job is going to an internal candidate, just as the city originally planned. On Thursday, Oceanside announced it had appointed Captain Fred Armijo, who’s been serving as acting interim chief since Frank McCoy retired.

It’s not uncommon for veteran officers to take on the top role; in fact, it’s a common practice across San Diego – and the nation.

Nearly every police chief in the county is a veteran of the departments they lead. In Chula Vista, Police Chief Roxana Kennedy was in the department for 24 years before being hired. In Carlsbad, Police Chief Neil Galluci was in the department for 26 years before being hired. In Escondido, Police Chief Ed Varso was in the department for more than 18 years before being hired. In El Cajon, Police Chief Mike Moulton was in the department for 24 years before being hired. In San Diego, Police Chief David Nisleit was in the department for 30 years before being hired. In National City, Police Chief Jose Tellez was in the department for 31 years before being hired.

One outlier is Coronado: The city named Charles Kaye police chief after he served on the San Diego State University Police Department and the San Diego Police Department.

A search for the next police chief in La Mesa is happening now.

Armijo has been with Oceanside Police for 26 years and will lead the Police Department’s 314 employees and manage a $66 million annual operating budget.

One reason Oceanside community leaders insisted that the department should expand its search for a new police chief is because of the lack of diversity within the department’s current leadership. Data provided by the city to Voice of San Diego shows the Oceanside Police Department’s leadership ranks are overwhelmingly White and male.

In response to those concerns, the city developed panels of police department heads, stakeholders and community members to interview the five finalists for the role and provide feedback to the city manager. Varso of Escondido, Kennedy of Chula Vista and retired Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz served on interview panels and ultimately decided that Armijo was the best fit.

Dr. Kadri Webb, a pastor at St. John Church, Max Disposti, executive director of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center and other community members also took part in those interviews. Webb told the Union-Tribune he was disappointed “with the selection of a candidate that represents the status quo.”

“It is worth noting that while the current selection interviewed satisfactorily and had a good rapport with the panel … the most qualified candidate was an African American female with substantive experience on many fronts. She presented over 17 years of collective experience as a deputy chief of police and chief of police in cities significantly larger than Oceanside, with total law enforcement experience spanning well over 25 years,” he said.

Disposti was more forgiving of the city’s decision. He told me the hiring process was more transparent after the city opened the search to external candidates and allowed community members to ask questions reflecting community concerns in the interview process. He praised Armijo’s work in the community, like frequent visits to the LGBTQ center and his commitment to taking stances against past leadership decisions made in the department. At the same time, Disposti said he would’ve loved to see a woman of color in the police chief role.

“But is Oceanside ready for that? There’s a lot of work to do in that direction,” he said.

Disposti said he hopes Armijo keeps his word on creating the infrastructure for citizen police review accountability with teeth – a demand put forth by the LGBTQ center, the local NAACP chapter, the Oceanside Justice Coalition and other community groups.

“There were some concerns having someone come from the same leadership and some desire to perhaps break apart from the male-dominated profession,” Disposti said. “I’m not surprised that Armijo was chosen. He has been very involved in the community for many years and is very well engrained there.”

Oceanside community members weren’t the first to push for more transparency surrounding the hire of a top cop. People in San Diego, El Cajon and National City all have called for more public input on hiring their respective police chiefs.

I also talked to Dr. Roddrick Colvin, a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University, about why this trend persists within law enforcement despite calls for change from various communities in the county.

Colvin said there’s still a system where people work up to leadership positions within one department, and it’s common practice nationwide for departments to make internal hires. Unless there’s a scandal from a previous police chief that plagued the department’s reputation, it’s not surprising from a Human Resources perspective to hire someone already in the department, he said.

“Internal candidates tend to keep the ship afloat. They want someone who knows policing and who knows about the community – the various neighborhood actions for city council and community members. Most of the time police departments are not looking for outside, innovative leaders,” he said.

There’s not a lot of differences between police chiefs nationwide, he said. “We don’t have a system with innovative candidates that have differences in policing, so an outside candidate might not be as different as you expect. The pool of police chiefs is probably smaller than you expect,” he said.

Colvin said there are a lot of structural barriers to creating change in the system. “If we really want policing reimagined, we have to do the harder task, which is to change laws. We have to have elected officials at the local, county and state level to make those changes. I don’t think police departments can do that.”

I’ll be talking to Armijo on Monday, and welcome your questions for him ahead of time.

Here’s what we know so far: Armijo joined the police department as a sworn police officer in 1994 and was promoted through the ranks as sergeant, lieutenant and captain. As captain, he directed support operations, investigations and patrol, according to a city press release. He is an Oceanside native and serves on the board of directors for Oceanside Promise, a group working with children and young adults, and is a member of the North San Diego County NAACP. He holds a bachelor’s degree in workforce education and development and a master’s in organizational leadership, and graduated from the FBI National Academy, the Senior Management Institute for Police and the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute.

In a press release, Lorson said officials were “extremely impressed with the expertise and credentials of the candidates” they interviewed.

“Through this highly competitive process, Armijo emerged as the top contender with the panels recognizing that he brings unique strengths and perspectives that are extremely valuable as he serves in this key role in our community. Chief Armijo is a leader who embraces continuous improvement, community policing, and a commitment to serving and protecting all of our citizens,” she wrote.

What We’re Working On

  • Voice of San Diego environment reporter MacKenzie Elmer has the latest on environmental issues in North County: Transit leaders say they need to build a tunnel underneath Del Mar in order to move train tracks perched on the city’s crumbling cliffs. And the state told Oceanside to stop laying big boulders in front of beachside properties. The city argues what it’s doing is legal. While you’re here, subscribe to Elmer’s Environment Report.
  • Crime-free housing programs in San Diego County, including Vista, are meant to hold absent landlords accountable but walk a fine line between safety and surveillance, VOSD associate editor Jesse Marx reported.

In Other News

  • San Diego County’s spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans is mirroring a national trend, KPBS reporter Claire Trageser wrote in a recent story.
  • Former San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Marco Garmo was sentenced to two years in prison for years of unlawful firearms transactions and for an array of corrupt conduct relating to unlicensed marijuana dispensaries operating in his former jurisdiction. Garmo admitted that one of his goals in selling so many guns for profit, “but another was to curry favor with prominent county residents whom he expected might support his planned run for Sheriff of San Diego County.” Marx previously reported on how the department made excuses for Garmo before the feds intervened.
  • North County students are returning to school after a judge ruled in favor of North County parents who sued. The parents alleged the state’s reopening rules have unfairly prevented school districts from opening in-person learning. (NBC 7, KPBS)
  • Poway Unified School District axed a deal with Costco after residents sued the district, claiming it violated the California Environmental Quality Act (The district previously denied those claims.) The district had planned to lease a district-owned land on the Black Mountain Ranch site to the big-box retailer. (inewsource)
  • Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear announced Tuesday she’s running for the same state Senate seat as Carlsbad Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel. Both women are eyeing the 36th California Senate Seat encompassing San Diego’s North County and South Orange County. The seat is currently held by Republican Sen. Pat Bates, who will be termed out. (Coast News)
  • A Superior Court dismissed a restraining order previously obtained by Carlsbad Councilwoman Cori Schumacher against two of her constituents, for what she alleged was harassment online. (Union-Tribune)
  • And finally, an Oceanside City Council member’s call to remove growing homeless camps from city sidewalks failed at the latest Council meeting. The Union-Tribune’s Gary Warth featured a homeless outreach event held by Oceanside police officers, county health workers and several service providers this week at one of the city’s homeless camps off Oceanside Boulevard.

Kayla Jimenez

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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