San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit and Mayor Todd Gloria appear at a press conference following a deadly crash. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As part of a larger effort to de-militarize emergency responders and improve relations with communities of color, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria released a list of proposed police reforms and public safety priorities last week.

Most of the focus in recent days has been on Gloria’s recommendation that the city eliminate existing gang injunctions, explore alternatives to arresting low-level offenders and put limits on pretext stops. The mayor’s push to separate the city’s Office of Homeland Security from the Police Department has gotten considerably less attention but will have ramifications for the entire region.

On the surface, Gloria’s proposal is normal for a new administration — new leaders often shake things up according to their preferences and policy positions.

But the move would also have the effect of returning oversight of homeland security matters to civilian officials rather than cops. Bureaucrats, not police leaders, would coordinate the distribution of federal anti-terrorism dollars throughout San Diego County.

In an interview, Gloria said he hoped the structural change would clear up any lingering confusion about priorities and motivations — he wants the Office of Homeland Security to remain focused on emergency preparedness and anti-terrorism efforts, while SDPD works to build trust in the communities it serves. Returning the Office of Homeland Security to non-police personnel was a byproduct of his decision, he said, but not the goal.

“I think this will better serve the concerns around law enforcement as well as better serve the needs of the city for oversight,” he said.

In 2019, Mayor Kevin Faulconer made the decision, via the budget process, to fold the Office of Homeland Security under the Police Department. It was a controversial move internally.

Joel Day, a City Council candidate and former adviser to Faulconer who worked on San Diego’s pandemic response, said most cities keep their anti-terrorism work and police work separate as a best practice, which is why he opposed the change. He said he was unaware of a single city where homeland security personnel take their marching orders from police.

Who actually runs San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security is an important question because its leaders manage a federal grant known as the Urban Area Security Initiative, or UASI for short, typically between $10 million and $20 million. Every year, a group of police and fire personnel from around the region meet to decide what tactical and surveillance gear to purchase, and which positions and projects get funded.

For a long time, the group has met in secret, though that’s no longer the case. Thanks to a lawsuit filed late last year by the newspaper La Prensa, the group’s meetings are now public. Still, the agencies that participate in those discussions have been slow to release records, making it difficult to track how anti-terrorism dollars have been spent locally over the last decade.

The few documents that have been released so far show that in fiscal year 2020 alone, SDPD had requested and was in line to purchase a thermal-imagining camera system, a mobile odor detection patrol vehicle, a mobile command van and two boats. It’s not immediately clear which of those came through. Year after year, the San Diego City Council has been known to rubber-stamp the application. Some elected officials have expressed frustration over being in the dark.

In other words, Faulconer’s decision to fold the Office of Homeland Security into SDPD effectively made SDPD the fiduciary agent for the entire region when it comes to the purchasing of equipment and overseeing the allocation of dollars for training and staff.

“I think the city leadership didn’t understand the importance of separating the civilian and policy capacity of OHS and the law enforcement capacity,” said Day, an academic who’s research has focused on terrorism and security. “Those are two different disciplines, and I think the primary incentive of Chief [David] Nisleit was control over UASI funds.”

After folding the Office of Homeland Security into SDPD, John Valencia, then the executive director, lost his job. Valencia didn’t return an interview request, but Day said he was opposed to the restructure. Katherine Jackson, a program manager, took over in Valencia’s absence, but she began reporting to a police captain rather than the city’s chief operating officer.

Jackson also left the city late last week for reasons that are still unclear. She didn’t return a request for comment. Gloria said Jackson’s decision to go was her own and he didn’t ask for that.

Faulconer’s original decision to fold the two into one caused confusion even among City Council members. While still in office, Council President Georgette Gómez asked the city’s independent budget analyst to explain how the “merger” had altered city operations. The IBA concluded in October that the Office of Homeland Security’s primary function hadn’t changed. But according to SDPD, the commingling of personnel who work on emergency response had brought the various entities closer together and improved disaster training.

Faulconer, who’s now running for governor, couldn’t be reached for comment. SDPD didn’t respond to questions submitted in writing Wednesday, but Gloria said he talked to the police chief and got his support for separating the two.

To be clear, law enforcement from around the county will continue to have influence over the distribution of anti-terrorism funds. San Diego’s voting member on the working group that makes UASI grant recommendations is, in fact, not the police chief but the fire chief. Nothing gets approved unless a majority of the group, which represents more than a dozen cities, agrees. And to this day, SDPD and the Office of Homeland Security have separate budgets.

Nonetheless, Gloria’s proposal comes at an interesting moment. According to San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security, the U.S. government is now requiring that 7.5 percent of all anti-terrorism dollars coming into San Diego and other major metros be spent “combating domestic violent extremism.” Another 5 percent must go toward “intelligence sharing and analysis and cooperation with federal agencies” and another 5 percent on top of that must be spent “addressing emergent threats,” including drones.

Gloria said his proposed restructure had nothing to do with changes to the federal grant. City budget discussions are approaching, and he said he wants to better understand the decisions made by his predecessor so he’s not flying by the seat of his pants.

Gloria also said he would welcome the Council’s feedback to his proposal and supports making UASI grant applications more transparent so that the working group responsible for divvying up funds is compliant with state open meetings laws.

“Those are no-brainers from my perspective,” he said.

Megan Beall, a program coordinator in the Office of Homeland Security, presented the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee with an overview of the UASI grant Wednesday, noting that anti-terrorism funds are supposed to supplement, not supplant, the work that law enforcement is already doing. Requests for funding must fall within the overarching goals set by the federal government.

Beall also told the committee that she’d need to check with the city attorney’s office but anticipates that her office will be providing the Council in the future with a breakdown of how anti-terrorism funds are being allocated and for what purpose.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who chairs the committee and who’s been critical of the opaque homeland security process in the past, said it’s possible to share more information without compromising public safety.

“The balancing of civil liberties, civil rights, with some of the equipment that could be purchased through these proposals is important and we really haven’t had these discussions before,” she said. “Additional scrutiny, that’s what this process is about … why we call ourselves a democracy.”

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.