An Oceanside police vehicle / Photo by Megan Wood

This month, Oceanside Police Capt. Fred Armijo took the reins as the department’s new police chief.

Responding to community feedback, Oceanside city manager Deanna Lorson opened up the search for the Police Department’s new chief and wound up settling on four outside candidates as finalists, plus Armijo, a department veteran.

In the end, Armijo, who’d been serving as acting interim chief since Frank McCoy retired, got the job. Some people have said because Armijo knows the community well and is familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the department, they believe he can do a good job and make way for community input. But others told me they’re skeptical that having a familiar face in the top role will lead to any significant changes.

In an interview, Armijo said he’s working to change the culture of the department and improve transparency with the community in mind, including residents of color, young people, homeless residents and other marginalized communities. To start, Armijo said he’s most proud of his work to revamp the department’s training program, and cited helping establish and improve a mobile command center, a law enforcement student academy and the homeless outreach team with an effort to get those people into housing as some of his biggest accomplishments.

In his new role, he said, he wants to build trust with the community by hiring a public information officer, creating more forums for discussion and establishing a community advisory board. Armijo also said he supports the creation of a citizen-led independent oversight committee.

“I know that there was a concern outside of the demographic issue with respect to the next chief of police just being a similar face with similar philosophies, similar policies and similar priorities. And I would just offer people, that’s not who I am. I’m a different person. I have different priorities,” Armijo said.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Do you feel there are specific strengths and challenges within the department that you are looking to change or keep now that you’re in this role as police chief?

One strength that we have right now I feel is the quality of people we have within the organization. We actually have a very solid management team. We’ve got great supervisors and we’ve got great staff doing good work every day. On the accountability front, I’ve kind of coalesced my ideas into three areas: training, accountability and community. When it comes to transparency, it’s on my agenda to create more windows for people to be able to see into our organization. Our website needs a lot of work. The monthly report that we produce now, I don’t believe it’s a very easy-to-absorb document.

The other space that we haven’t ventured into yet is … a process for us to do weekly community update messages and kind of tailor it. We’ve got 17 different communities in Oceanside; doing 17 different messages is probably too much, so what I’ve got to do is figure out how am I going to lump some of these communities together so that the information is still meaningful to their areas. But I want to build out a system where I’m doing that on some kind of frequency.

When it comes to the kind of things that we put in our monthly report, I want to start doing things along the lines of informing with respect to demographics. So, what are the demographics of our crime victims? What are the demographics of our suspects? What are the demographics of use of force? What are the demographics of complaints? Because I think that’s information that the community is hungry for. And I think there’s ways that we can do that in a more visual way, that’s easy to kind of digest very quickly. …

There’s just so many different things that I think we can do on a creative front to help better inform people and what’s going on in the organization when it comes to training.

I’ve got to be able to build out an infrastructure to make that happen. That’s an important thing for me when it comes to community. We need to create more and more opportunities for our folks here to engage with the community outside of crisis.

I think sometimes there are certain crises that perhaps do lend themselves to relationship-establishing and building, but I think we can leverage a lot more relationship-building opportunities by creating other spaces for that.

So there’s three that I’m researching and hoping to pull together. One is a community advisory panel, which in my mind is made up of folks that are doing work to further the community in some capacity. And we would have some level of frequent meeting … and it would give me an opportunity to hear more voices and help with creating additional relationships with the community.

The second one would be a youth advisory panel. That for me would be more targeting of the older teen and early 20s group but for the same purpose. … And then the third one would be the same kind of version, but it would be a pastor version. Our pastors, our leaders in the community, and it can help to create more opportunities for building relationships; having more opportunities for dialogue, create more opportunities for listening, and communicating.

I’ve heard quite a few complaints from community members about the Oceanside Police Department, but I’m interested in understanding what complaints or concerns you’ve heard from the community and how you plan to address them.

Part of the issue is I think there’s a discussion going on in the community and I don’t know how much of it is anecdotal versus an experience that somebody can share with us so that we can look into it. I think establishing these panels and creating more relationships, then these issues can come forward so that we can look into them.

I think there’s a conversation going on that we’ve not truly been a part of, and that’s been a mistake on our part. And we need to get to the table and have conversations and hear what people are feeling and what they’re thinking so that we can figure out how to better address them. I think part of it is we need to establish the right relationships so that we can be at the table when those conversations are taking place so that we can be a part of hearing what issues are there and work on them. There are spaces, for instance, with the NAACP. We’ve got good relationships there and a lot of the more recent conversations are centered around policy de-escalation, as an example.

I’ll give you an example of how I think we’ve done a poor job over the last number of years with communication. Soon after George Floyd, the Oceanside Justice Coalition was formed. And that group had communicated to the Police Department at the time and was looking to have a number of policies either adopted or amended. So out of that we created our own standalone de-escalation policy. And at the time, the district attorney’s office was implementing a training program that they were offering to the entire county, which was an eight-hour class on de-escalation. We got our entire department through that program in the month of August. We ended up having a number of our own instructors that started participating in assisting with the DA’s office with giving these trainings elsewhere. We were the first in the entire county to complete that training. There was a group of us that did a panel presentation with MiraCosta College a couple of weeks ago and we were getting questions about de-escalation like when we are going to apply it and when are we going to train on it. That’s a great example of us not having done a good enough job with informing the public on some of the things that we’ve done.

I definitely hear your priority is transparency. I know that some of the community members that I’ve talked to like the NAACP have called for an independent citizen advisory board to oversee the department. Are you in support of that?

Yeah. In fact, I’m pretty confident that’s something that we’ll see our police and fire commission start to do some work on. And I think we’ll have some recommendations to the City Council sometime this year.

Are there any other changes in the department you plan to focus on?

There’s actually quite a bit. There’s a couple of things that I think we need to do very soon. The last time that there was any kind of organizational analysis done on the Police Department was in the late ‘80s. And out of that analysis there were goals centered around response times for various priority type calls and that was referenced in the general plan. We’ve done nothing with any kind of update since then, and that’s a long time.

And then when you look at how we’re presently structured with the way that we distribute resources across the city. We have the same beat and sector map configuration that was in effect in 2000 and our population has grown at least by 15,000. In that time there’s been different developments taking place and different communities have been built out. I think we’re long overdue at analyzing our calls for service across the city response times and updating this manner in which we distribute officers to be current.

And then when you look at kind of where we’re at with staffing we have a number of vacancies that need to be filled in 2022 and 2023. There’s going to be some waves of retirements. We need to build our own community-based farming system to develop future employees for the police department. And in some ways, I’m going to tackle that and include trying to grow our cadet program. That’s a pool that I want to try to expand to give people from our own community more opportunities to get the foot into your organization. We’ve got an explorer program that that can be expanded.

So, I’ve got some work to do to try to build this community farming system to grow our own Oceanside resident employee base and that way going forward we wouldn’t find her ourselves in such a huge hole when it comes to vacancies. And then structurally when you look at our organization, we’ve added units here and there over the last 15 or so years within my view no real purposeful design on placement and structure and fit within your organization.

One of the concerns from the community in the city’s hiring process of police chief was the backlash calling for the city manager to allow outside candidates to apply because there was concern of leadership in the Police Department being overwhelmingly male and White, and people felt that contributed to a culture where populations of color in Oceanside haven’t been represented. Is diversity of the department something that you’re planning to work addressing in your role now?

I think part of creating a community-based farming system for future employees is it gives us more opportunities to do more specific and better outreach into our minority communities to recruit more people into our department and that stuff isn’t likely to happen overnight. But we have to start somewhere and start increasing that footprint. I think we do OK in some areas, but we have work to do in others. I mean, typically it’s been a male-dominated profession and we need to do better outreach and trying to recruit more women into the organization. I think we’re underrepresented when it comes to the Hispanic community. We have work to do there. I think that if you look at, as one example, the Samoan community. I believe outside of either Carson or Long Beach, I think Oceanside has the largest population of Samoans and we should have a much higher representation within our own staff from the small community. So we definitely have a lot of work when it comes to those issues. But to me those are all, I think, great opportunities that with a little bit of focus and more outreach, I think we can make huge strides in those areas.

When I talked to Mayor Esther Sanchez when she was running for office, one of her concerns was negative interactions between police officers and community members especially on the east side of town. Do you have a plan to improve these interactions?

I’m sure you’re familiar with Coffee with a Cop, which has kind of got put on the back burner because of COVID. Most of our coffee with the cops are held like at a business because it’s like a coffee shop or restaurant has been generous enough to sponsor the event. And the Chamber of Commerce has been a site for us a number of times, but I think that needs to be a road show. I think it needs to be a road show into our communities to make it easier for people that live there. We’re bringing it to them, and we do it with varying times so that we can catch people when there’s a higher likelihood of folks coming and going. It’s not a difficult thing for us to manage. I think that’s just a matter of a waiting game now for COVID to be at that point where we can engage in that aspect again.

We have a community policing model where we have specific officers assigned to our neighborhood policing team and they serve as the primary link. I want to look at that program and figure out a way for us to grow it a bit. And it’s something that I’m hoping we can pick up on some efficiencies once we get an analysis done of how we’re organized. If I can grow that position a little bit, it just creates more reach. There’s only so much an individual officer can do when they’re covering an entire sector. Each sector is not aligned with council districts, but it’s roughly the same footprint in size. So that’s part of it. You’ve got a call for service model that at times doesn’t generate a whole lot of opportunities for people to be engaging especially when, for instance, we were just doing some analysis on our watch teams and they’re averaging 12 calls a shift. So, we’ve got this model right now that doesn’t really provide any opportunities for much community engagement.

We rely heavily on this neighborhood policing team component and can leverage some technologies with respect to how people report crime. As an example, we have certain crimes that people can actually file online. If depending on the criteria and the type of crime, if we can leverage more of that then that would allow for more opportunities throughout an individual officer’s day to get out on foot to make contact with businesses in his or her area.

What We’re Working On

  • In Escondido, Bear Valley Middle School managed to open and mostly stay open, VOSD reporter Ashly McGlone reports. Its success could offer insight to schools district like Vista Unified School District and Carlsbad Unified School District that are now giving families the choice to return to campus.
  • I wrote about how San Diego County still doesn’t have equitable internet access one year into the pandemic. Community activists have long underscored the impacts of the gaps of access to high speed, reliable internet to non-White and poorer communities and they’ve critiqued public leaders for not taking quicker action to bridge the divide. I’m digging into this further and want to hear from people who are having trouble connecting.

In Other News

  • The county is expanding efforts to get people who have suffered the worst outcomes of the pandemic vaccinated. Native American community clinics are taking a one approach by administering vaccines. (Union-Tribune)
  • The Union-Tribune’s Gary Warth is on top of a controversial homeless encampment near Oceanside Boulevard and Interstate 5 in Oceanside. In his latest piece, he wrote that Oceanside police made several arrests after drugs and illegal weapons were found at the camp. Nearby, Carlsbad is expanding its homeless outreach efforts by hiring more staff for its outreach team. (Union-Tribune)
  • It’s no secret that the coastal bluffs in North County are in danger of collapsing. A recent bill would allocate $2.5 million for research that could help predict when and seaside cliffs fail and prevent catastrophic deaths. (Union-Tribune)
  • Here we go again: A new proposed housing plan in Oceanside could bring more homes to the agricultural region of Morro Hills. (Union-Tribune)
  • And finally, SANDAG is asking North County residents to share their thoughts on transportation planning in the region in effort to create people-based transportation, build a seamless system that works better for all people in North County and a foundation for the future.

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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