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Before becoming San Diego’s top cop, Bill Lansdowne won praise
for how he handled controversy. Unlike those past scandals,
Lansdowne’s own decisions here have contributed to the
underpinnings of the latest.
The headlines were damning. Leaders from San Jose’s black community said cops had put a target on their backs. Police were unjustly stopping drivers because of their race and in some cases assaulting them, too, they said. Even black cops noted the startling trend.
The city’s new police chief, Bill Lansdowne, stepped into his job and had to handle the mounting tensions. His advisers told him to leave the sensitive issue alone. He disagreed. Rather than ignore racial profiling, he wanted to study it.
It was 1999, and San Jose was suffering. The allegations, coming atop the worst decade of crime in the city’s history, had taken a toll on public confidence in police. Lansdowne aimed to mend it. He told his officers to add race, gender and age information to their traffic reports. If racial profiling was indeed a problem in San Jose, he wanted to know.
The black community stood behind his efforts and civil rights advocates called it a positive step. Lansdowne transformed a local controversy into a project lauded by law enforcement officials across the nation. A year later, the study found no evidence of racial profiling, exonerating his troops.
Now, a decade later in a different city, Lansdowne faces another controversy threatening his department’s reputation. Since October, the San Diego Police Department has acknowledged at least 11 internal or criminal investigations against officers. The allegations include three cases of drunken driving as well as excessive force, domestic violence, sexual assault, on-duty rape and other offenses. Five officers have been charged criminally and prosecutors are considering several more cases.
It’s the Police Department’s largest scandal in the last decade, but for Lansdowne, the trouble is familiar territory. He relishes the challenge of public scrutiny. It’s energized him and made him rethink his plan to retire next year.
But unlike past controversies he’s handled, Lansdowne’s own decisions have contributed to the underpinnings of this one. Faced with budget pressures in the last eight years, his priorities have reshaped the department. He’s preserved patrol units but cut oversight mechanisms meant to monitor for officer misconduct. Now the potential impacts of that shift are being felt.
Still, Lansdowne himself hasn’t publicly come under fire from city officials or residents. The endearing reputation he’s cultivated during his tenure and the continued drop in major crime in the city have earned Lansdowne a great deal of confidence from his bosses.
“He’s inspired trust through his performance. If there’s some problem that needs to be fixed internally, you can bet he’s going to be on it,” said Marti Emerald, chairwoman of the City Council’s public safety committee. “Now, if this just keeps happening and we get the same answer, then we need to take a look at something.”
Controversy for Breakfast
At 67, Lansdowne’s work ethic continues to be a defining characteristic, and among city officials and police officers, it’s one of his most respected qualities. His typical morning routine is a story told around the department.
Lansdowne commutes an hour from his ranch-style home in Fallbrook to arrive at the downtown headquarters by 5 a.m. He’s an information junkie, stopping by the watch commander and the dispatcher’s office to learn what’s happened in the previous shift.
Then, in morning meetings, he circles around with department supervisors, sergeants to assistant chiefs, for their perspective on big events like robberies or murders. If they miss something he’s already learned from the watch commander or dispatchers, he’s not happy.
The lesser-known part of his morning routine, though, happens before the chief ever jumps in his cruiser. After waking up around 3 a.m., Lansdowne flips on his home computer to scan newspapers and law enforcement journals for the words “police chief.” He says he specifically wants to know how other chiefs handle controversy and learn from their mistakes.
“The underlying theme is being open and getting ahead of the problem,” Lansdowne said in an interview Wednesday. “You’re never judged by the problem. You’re judged by how you handled the problem.”
And it was that philosophy that spurred Lansdowne to call a meeting with the city’s press corps on May 10 to publicly apologize for the recent spike in officer misconduct and roll out a plan to address it. He said the department would shift more officers to an internal affairs unit that investigates complaints, create a confidential complaint hotline, pay greater attention to officer wellness, hold meetings with all staff and review other policies.
“I clearly understand that the conduct of the officers involved in these cases has tarnished the image of the Police Department, and we’ll work hard to repair that, but it will take years to rebuild that relationship,” Lansdowne told the cameras.
What was notable was at that point, no city official had publicly called for Lansdowne to address the spike in misconduct, let alone apologize for it. But in the following weeks, his swift reaction received public praise from the mayor, the City Council president and other city officials.
“It’s the hallmark of a strong leader to come forward,” City Councilman Todd Gloria said. “I don’t think an apology from him was necessary, but in terms of the execution of that event, that’s good leadership.”
Internally, though, some cops reacted differently. Officers tend to explain the spike in misconduct from two camps. It either represents a coincidental string of offenses that happened to occur in a short timeframe or an institutional problem finally spilling into the limelight. Lansdowne supported the latter conclusion at the press conference, frustrating those who felt the spike was an anomaly — not an institutional problem — and were now being thrown under a much wider cloud of controversy.
Jeff Jordon is vice president of the police officers union and attended the press conference to show his support for the chief’s plan. He said it was the right move.
“Are there some people who think it was overblown? Yeah. But at the end of the day we expect a lot of our people, and we’re not going to tolerate these kinds of actions by anybody,” Jordon said. “I think the message was not only to the public but to his own officers.”
A Career Born in Controversy
Long before his morning routine in San Diego, Lansdowne’s attention to controversy grew from his experiences as a chief elsewhere. After rising through the ranks of the San Jose Police Department, he left in 1994 to become the police chief of Richmond.
It wasn’t a sought-after position. The suburban community north of Oakland typically had one of the state’s highest crime rates and its police department had been ravaged by a police brutality scandal. Like the racial profiling controversy in San Jose years later, public confidence in police had eroded.
To rebuild trust with residents, Lansdowne focused on reducing violent crime and putting more cops on the street. Like he’s done in San Diego, Lansdowne reached out to residents to hear their concerns and shifted officers from specialized units to patrol cars so their presence would be felt.
During his five years as chief in Richmond, most major crimes dropped. Police reported 18 murders in 1998, nearly three times fewer than the year Lansdowne took over.
In 1998, noting those changes, police in San Jose invited Lansdowne back to become their chief. There, he implemented many of the same changes, disbanding specialized units and putting greater focus on patrol.
But in San Jose, Lansdowne faced more controversy. After he quelled concerns about racial profiling, the department’s reputation suffered from a series of officer-involved shootings.
The death of a 25-year-old woman especially fanned tensions in the Vietnamese community. She allegedly threatened two officers with a vegetable peeler and one shot her when she raised it. Prosecutors opened a grand jury investigation.
When protesters gathered at San Jose’s downtown police headquarters, Lansdowne literally received cheers when he came outside to talk with them. He promised to review the shooting and meet with community leaders to discuss any concerns. Later, the department issued condolences for the death through Vietnamese-language radio.
Leaders in the Vietnamese community and law enforcement observers called Lansdowne’s moves politically savvy, even if it didn’t entirely erase the tarnish. When he left San Jose the same year to become San Diego’s police chief, the local newspaper said his otherwise positive legacy had been stained.
The criminal investigations of the 25-year-old woman’s death exonerated police actions, but the city lost a $1.8 million lawsuit filed by her family.
Dealing with Controversy in San Diego
Until recent months, San Diego police haven’t experienced a prolonged controversy under Lansdowne’s watch.
Before the recent scandal, most of the public scrutiny facing Lansdowne in San Diego has come in the wake of his own comments. Lansdowne battled with former City Attorney Mike Aguirre and campaigned against him during his re-election bid. The chief testified as a character witness in 2005 for then-City Councilman Michael Zucchet, who faced corruption charges, drawing criticism from his own officers and Jerry Sanders, a former police chief and then candidate for mayor.
In both cases, the chief was accused of crossing the line politically with his actions. Aguirre called for Lansdowne to resign and Sanders called his testimony incomprehensible for a police chief and a clear conflict of interest since SDPD had been involved in the investigation.
And Lansdowne has attracted attention for repeatedly portraying the Police Department in a better light than the numbers support. In 2007, for example, amid contract negotiations with the police officers union, Lansdowne made to the City Council several inaccurate statements that implied response times were faster than they were. He said the city’s crime rate was at its lowest point since 1976, which wasn’t true.
What’s notable about all of these controversies is that city officials, police officers and residents seem to brush them aside. While a headline might portray the chief or the department in a negative light one day, his reputation perseveres.
“I’ve always heard positive things,” said City Council President Tony Young. “I don’t support anybody in city government as strongly as Chief Lansdowne. He’s the cream of the crop.”
Patrol and Everything Else
When Lansdowne took the reins in 2003, San Diego’s deep financial problems began to unfurl and catalyzed the push to reshape the Police Department like Lansdowne had done in Richmond and San Jose. The city asked Lansdowne to save money, so he cut specialties.
While previous chiefs built specialized units, joined task forces or created special assignments to work alongside patrol officers, Lansdowne withdrew, pushing for giving patrol units a greater role in the department.
Boosting patrol had been part of Lansdowne’s response to previous controversies in other cities. But in San Diego, some of the mechanisms meant to monitor for officer misconduct have been cut by Lansdowne to put more cops on the streets.
He disbanded a covert unit created to proactively investigate for officer misconduct. He replaced a full-time drug and alcohol counselor with two employees with part-time assignments. He paid greater attention to building a new communications system than software designed to warn supervisors about bad behavior and prevent it from escalating into misconduct.
He’s touted his system as a way to preserve valuable skills while also maintaining a sufficiently staffed patrol force responsible for emergency calls. Despite losing hundreds of officers in recent years, response times still improved. Following national trends, major crimes continue to fall.
The downside of Lansdowne’s focus on patrol is that collateral functions, such as officer alcohol counseling, sometimes take a backseat. Despite falling levels of crime, police still respond to a similar number of calls each year and with fewer officers, it also translates to having less time for prevention.
In response to the spike in alleged misconduct, Lansdowne acknowledged that his priorities needed adjustment. He placed too much weight behind fighting crime through patrol, he said, and not enough on internal oversight and officers’ health.
“Whether or not it’s an institutional problem,” Lansdowne said, “it’s my responsibility to address it and fix it. The systems are in place. They just need to be bolstered up a little bit.”
Weathering the Storm
Last year, Lansdowne said he wanted to finish his career in San Diego alongside the departure of his boss, Mayor Jerry Sanders, in 2012. Now, faced with controversy, he wants to stick around a little longer and he has no end-date in mind.
Before Lansdowne retires, he wants to see the current controversy through. He says he wants to weather the storm again and make sure all those early mornings at his home computer and the reputation he’s built with the community weren’t for nothing.
“It’s actually energized me,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been through these issues before and you’ve got to focus on where you want to be and how to get there. We’ll come out stronger than when we into this as an organization.”