The police weren’t doing a good job of policing themselves. That’s the basic thrust of a yearlong Justice Department review of the San Diego Police Department released Tuesday.

Police and city officials had asked for the feds’ help after 17 officer misconduct cases in recent years and multiple lawsuits and criminal trials had uncovered evidence of systemic problems within the department for handling officer discipline.

The report largely confirmed those concerns.

“On a broad level, [researchers] did not identify any particular policy failure or common underlying factor that tied the misconduct cases together,” the report said. “Rather, it was gaps in policies and practices, a lack of consistent supervision at many levels and a failure to hold personnel accountable that allowed misconduct to occur and go undetected for some time.”

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who was hired in the midst of the misconduct scandal last year, pledged to implement the 40 reforms recommended in the report and emphasized that many were already being implemented.

Here are three key takeaways from the report:

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Officers didn’t have adequate supervision and began gaming the system.

Zimmerman’s predecessor, former Chief William Lansdowne, rarely raised any red flags about how years of tight city budgets were affecting the department.

Yet, the report said that the department has consistently short-staffed its sergeant positions – the front-line supervisors who deal most directly with patrol officers. The department also regularly appointed patrol officers to be acting sergeants on a temporary basis, which led to conflicts in acting sergeants potentially having to discipline their peers.

Some cops figured out how to use these gaps to escape detection.

“At least one of the officers under review moved his shift time around every few months, presumably to avoid supervisors observing patterns of questionable behavior,” the report said. “A few veterans with the department … specifically sought shift times when supervisors were extremely busy and have less time to check in with their subordinates.” (A hat tip to U-T San Diego reporter Greg Moran for first finding this nugget.)

Both Faulconer and Zimmerman talked about the recent deal to boost officer pay and other efforts to recruit and retain efforts to remedy this problem.

Complaints slipped through the cracks.

Police accountability experts and attorneys have criticized SDPD for failing to take citizen complaints seriously.

The report zeroed in on one specific process: something called a public service inquiry.

The department created the public service inquiry in 2008 as an alternative to deal with less serious complaints in the field. It allowed an officer’s supervisor to resolve a minor complaint without any formal investigation.

The process, the report said, “creates several concerns, including an enormous amount of discretion on the part of the supervisor handling the complaint, the inability to track officer-specific [public service inquiries], and the lack of review by commanding officers.”

There also had been worries that department officials were using public service inquiries to shield officers from serious complaints. In 2010, the department initially classified a female detainee’s sexual assault claims against then-Officer Anthony Arevalos as a public service inquiry. That could have delayed her rape examination, which ended up being inconclusive. Arevalos wasn’t charged in that case and solicited sexual bribes from at least three other women while on duty until he was arrested in a different sexual assault case a year later.

Researchers recommended eliminating public service inquiries and funneling all complaints into a more formal investigative process.

SDPD didn’t hold officers accountable.

Misconduct within the department was hidden because cops weren’t held responsible for their behavior, the report found.

“Perhaps the most important lesson learned from this assessment is that the failure of the department’s leaders to adequately address smaller problems led to much larger issues,” the report said.

Arevalos’ case again makes this point. Department leaders missed numerous warning signs going back 15 years before Arevalos was ultimately arrested and charged with sexual assault in 2011.

The department inadvertently drew attention to its failure to hold Arevalos accountable with an awkwardly timed move announcing the promotion of Rudy Tai just a day before the report’s release. Tai is the SDPD supervisor most closely linked with failing to discipline Arevalos over the years, according to depositions and other information from the civil case against the Arevalos.

Tai was Arevalos’ supervisor in the late 1990s. Arevalos told Tai he’d flirted with a woman with mental disabilities in the back of his patrol car. Tai let Arevalos off with a verbal warning and didn’t document the incident. Other officers said in depositions they’d reported that Arevalos had taken naked pictures of the woman and one officer said he’d reported that the woman had put Arevalos’ baton in her vagina while Arevalos watched. Tai said in his deposition that he doesn’t recall being told of the more serious allegations and would have taken more severe actions against Arevalos had he known about them.

When Arevalos was arrested more than a decade later, Tai was in charge of the sex-crimes unit, which was handling the case. At the time, Tai didn’t tell his own investigators about Arevalos’ conduct with the mentally disabled woman. Tai said in a deposition that he didn’t think the incident was relevant.

Beyond that, during the 2011 Arevalos investigation, an investigator with the district attorney’s office worried that Tai had covered up the incident from the 1990s and was trying to slow down the sexual assault case against Arevalos, she said in a deposition. The investigator never approached SDPD about her concerns with Tai.

More recently, Tai had been serving as a lieutenant in charge of the department’s criminal intelligence unit. But earlier this week, Zimmerman promoted Tai to captain – one of the highest ranks in the department. Tai will have command over a unit, such as department investigations or traffic enforcement, but it’s not yet been decided where he’s going, department spokesman Scott Wahl said.

Wahl declined to comment on Tai’s involvement with Arevalos.

    This article relates to: Must Reads, Police Misconduct, Public Safety

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Citizen complaint.

    Probable cause.

    Ha, ha, you guys make me laugh.



    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    So lets see, Tai the guy who was to report the sexual exploits of a rogue cop and ignored them or gave a verbal warning gets promoted to captain for not doing his job. Sounds about right for this corrupt department, and corrupt government that runs this city.

    Why not have the developers and hotel owners take over the police department, after all they are the true leaders of city government.  

    DavidM subscriber

    So, to summarize, the report essentially blasts SDPD intermediate leadership (sergeants, lieutenants, captains, deputy chiefs) for essentially tolerating misconduct or failing to properly supervise and document.  "Public service inquiries" essentially result in "counseling" - a verbal correction of a training issue - or they are ignored completely as the citizen is deemed uncredible.  And a "sexual assault" of a detainee is a public service problem.  In any event, they tend to be undocumented.

    The current Chief was promoted from that intermediate leadership, and Sergeant Tai is now Captain Tai.  La Mesa's new chief used to be an Assistant Chief at SDPD, also rising up through the ranks of misconduct.  And, of course, we are told that leadership is committed to implementation of the recommendations of the report. 

    Does San Diego really want to accept that failed leadership on so many levels should be trusted with a culture change so complete?  "I realize I didn't do my job well in the last five years, but I'm committed to doing it well now" is not a justifiable excuse in light of the magnitude of the failures.  (Interesting side note, Tai was promoted AFTER Zimmerman read the report (SDPD got it earlier than everyone else) and AFTER he was deposed and his supervision called into question.  How committed to change can she be if her conduct shows that she KNEW he failed in a subordinate position and still determined that he should move up?)

    A better result would be giving the Civilian Review Board actually investigative power as an administrative board that can take evidence and make findings and policy changes, but also be able to monitor policy implementation.  Some complaints may still "fall through the cracks," but at least an independent investigation can ask why they are receiving a second, third, fourth, etc., complaint against a specific officer for a similar offense.

    rhylton subscriber

    I suppose that biased policing does not qualify as misconduct. Contrary to assertions made (or avoided) by the Chief, San Diego has a Practice and Policy  of disparate treatment of Blacks and Hispanics and Asians (preferential.) This Practice results in the disparities that were too ugly for PERF to include or mention; so its dodge 

    Blacks have the lowest Stop to Citation rate. It is 78.42% to that of Whites (suggesting that they are often stopped for DWB)  Hispanics are cited at 99.94% of the rate experienced by Whites. 

    Blacks are arrested at a rate that is 143.50% to that of Whites. Hispanics 124.24%.

    Blacks are searched at a rate that is 325.64% to that of Whites. Hispanics 207.24%.

    Blacks are found to have contraband at a rate that is 59.68% to that of Whites, Hispanics 59.82% Asians 92.11%

    Hispanics have their property seized 213.13% that of Whites, Blacks 211.87%, Asians 82.85%

    Hispanics have their vehicles searched at a rate that is 235.41% that of Whites, Blacks 333.55%, Asians 132.55%

    Passengers in vehicles driven by Blacks are searched at a rate that is 418.42% of the rate when the driver is White.  If the driver is Hispanic, passengers are searched 172.22% as often as the passengers of White drivers.

    There are several other categories that I examined, eight or nine. I cannot bother to type them here. All the above is San Diego's data.

    These disparities are,  independent of of demographic considerations; The SDPD's subterfuge. They merely reflect or report on what happens after people are stopped. Again, all this is in the SDPD's data

    If I am not mistaken, much of the country was flabbergasted by Ferguson's 1.37% Disparity Index.

    Finally; numbers never lie but they can be hidden, especially when they are in plain sight. 

    DavidM subscriber

    @rhylton  Excellent points of consideration, but beyond the scope of this particular inquiry, the questions here related to how misconduct could be occurring for such a extended length of time.