Column: Gloria pushes changes in SDPD amid national focus on law enforcement

Mayor Todd Gloria seemed to be in the zeitgeist of the moment last week when he unveiled potentially sweeping changes in San Diego Police Department practices.

Discussions over how law enforcement operates have been taking place across the country since last year’s social justice protests triggered by the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police. Events in the past few weeks have intensified that debate.

The ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murdering Floyd, has thrust the incident back to the top of the national news along with the dispute over police tactics and training.

Maryland legislators passed new statewide police protocols the day before Gloria released his proposals on Friday and the day after they overrode their governor’s vetoes aimed at blocking the new policies.

On Sunday, the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old man by a police officer during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb led to a renewed round of unrest. President Joe Biden on Monday urged “peace and calm” in the wake of the shooting while investigators sort out why this happened. The Brooklyn Center, Minn., police chief said the officer had meant to use her Taser instead of her gun.

The officer and police chief have since submitted their resignations.

Closer to home, the racial disparities in San Diego police actions are coming under growing scrutiny, thanks in part to “The Color of Authority,” a recent in-depth series by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Amid all this discussion about police, the mayor issued his proposals via press release early Friday afternoon. His office did not respond to a question about why a news conference — typical for such a high-profile announcement — was not held. As a result, news media coverage was limited, particularly on television.

The proposals were later included in a broader package of mostly economic policies aimed at boosting San Diego’s Black communities. Gloria made that announcement at a news conference Monday.

The mayor’s 11 police proposals seek to increase accountability and transparency and address racial disparities in how police operate. The changes could transform law enforcement procedures, but that won’t be known until detailed policies are developed and put into practice.

The Union-Tribune’s Alex Riggins outlined Gloria’s proposals, which call for reviewing hiring procedures and bolstering anti-bias training for officers, limiting the sometimes controversial tactic known as pretext stops and removing the city’s Office of Homeland Security from the control of the Police Department.

The package also includes eliminating existing gang injunctions, pushing for alternatives to arresting low-level offenders and shifting some nonemergency calls police now deal with to other agencies.

Gloria also pledged to “appropriately fund and faithfully implement” the emerging Commission on Police Practices, an independent panel with subpoena power overwhelmingly approved by voters under Measure B in November. The commission will replace a weaker oversight panel that has existed for decades.

City Council member Monica Montgomery Steppe was included in Gloria’s announcement, along with police Chief David Nisleit and City Attorney Mara Elliott. That’s significant because arguably no San Diego elected official has more credibility with the local police reform movement than Montgomery Steppe, who was a leading advocate for Measure B.

Montgomery Steppe, the council’s only Black member, and others have been working on many of the proposals since before Gloria was elected mayor in November.

“I look forward to working through the details of each reform listed here today, to ensure that we are getting to the root of racial profiling and disparate treatment in our communities of concern, as we continue our fight to create a public safety equity ecosystem in our region,” she said in a statement in Gloria’s release.

Not involved in the announcement was the San Diego Police Officers Association, which will be a key player in negotiating the fine points of the package. In the past, the POA has resisted some changes. For years, the organization had opposed proposals for an independent police commission, favoring the model used by the city, but last year remained officially neutral on Measure B.

Critics maintained that both the city’s previous police board and its counterpart overseeing the county Sheriff’s Department essentially have been paper tigers because they must rely to a great degree on investigations conducted by the law enforcement agencies.

Gloria, as well as fellow Democrat Elliott, were endorsed by the police association last year, which created some political tension in the wake of Floyd’s death and the protests. The San Diego County Democratic Party passed a resolution calling on local Democratic elected officials to reject endorsements and support from law enforcement unions.

Neither Gloria nor Elliott, both of whom had been endorsed by the party, did. Gloria was a member of the state Assembly at the time. Other Democrats, including San Diego City Council members, also were elected with support of the POA.

That has left some lingering concern among members of law enforcement reform groups, such as San Diegans for Justice, about what kind of influence the POA might have on proposed changes in policing, along with how the new Commission on Police Practices will be shaped.

POA President Jack Schaffer told the Union-Tribune’s Riggins the mayor and his staff consulted with the police union on the proposals. Because some of the potential changes could affect working conditions, they may be subject to the “meet and confer” labor negotiating process.

Chief Nisleit, meanwhile, is in an peculiar position. He has served his entire career in the SDPD and was appointed chief by former Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Now he works for Gloria. His role in helping to develop the policies and his level of enthusiasm in selling them to the public and SDPD rank-and-file will be interesting to watch.

In the release, Nisleit made mention of some past policy changes by the department. Among them was banning the disputed carotid restraint neck hold.

He said the department would “continue to invest in resources, provide additional training and refine our policies” to keep both the community and officers safe.

It’s our duty to build trust with all members of our community so that they can feel safe and treated equally when interacting with our officers,” he said.

Whether trust in San Diego police is strengthened across the city — particularly in communities of color — will determine the ultimate success of Gloria’s proposals.