Elections tend to expose the usual rifts – Democrats vs. Republicans, unions vs. business – but one proposition on the ballot this week  has exposed a new rift among San Diego’s law enforcement community.
William Lansdowne, San Diego’s most recent former chief of police, co-wrote Prop. 47, which would change some low-level crimes, like certain drug crimes and petty theft, to misdemeanors instead of felonies. If passed, the state projects it would save between $750 million to $1.2 billion – money that would then by pumped into school programs, substance abuse treatment and victims’ services.
Sounds great, right? Not necessarily.
Opponents have brought up some major concerns about the potential law – namely that people who steal handguns or are found with a date-rape drug could be charged only with a misdemeanor.
One of those people is San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. Zimmerman worked closely with Lansdowne during his time on the force, but she’s making a notable break with him in opposing the measure. The San Diego Police Association also opposes Prop. 47.
We spoke with both Lansdowne and Zimmerman to flesh out their feelings on the measure. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.
This is what Lansdowne had to say.
Given your background as longtime police chief for three major cities, why would you want to write a measure to lessen penalties for some crimes?
I’ve looked at the system and watched it very carefully, and we have the highest recidivism rate in the country. We’re warehousing people and we can’t get them treatment. By their numbers, roughly 50 percent of the people today that are in prison today in California are suffering from some sort of mental illness and or addiction. We need to turn that around. The system is not working. Since I’ve been in the business since 1966, they’ve built 22 prisons and one university. Today it costs us $62,000 to keep a person in prison, and we spent $9,000 on each student. This is a common-sense approach to end prison overcrowding, which the courts already said they had to do. And it will take money, which is projected to be $1.2 billion over the next five years and that will go to real people with mental health issues, people with addiction issues, it will go to kids to prevent truancy and prevention in the school system and 10 percent goes to victims in the process. It redirects the money to prevent crime occurring in the first place and end overcrowding in the prisons.
Those people that are opposed, they point to several things and they say it’s going to release a lot of dangerous prisoners; that there’s 10,000 people out there that are in prison that would be eligible for review. Well, it’s not an automatic get-out-of-jail free, there’s a review by a judge who will make a decision based on their prior conduct, their conduct within the prison system and then an evaluation whether they are at risk of committing violent crimes. So it’s not a free pass to get out.
Why do you think the San Diego Police Officers Association, along with Shelley Zimmerman, don’t share the same views? And to the point that they are campaigning against it.
Change is hard. We saw the same thing when realignment came back, everybody said it was going to release all these prisoners and violent people are going to get out. Then we saw the change with Prop 36, that all these violent prisoners were getting out.
The recidivism rate for Prop. 36, those are the people that went in for a nonviolent felony and got a life sentence for three strikes. The recidivism rate is less than 2 percent right now. So if you’re looking at realignment, gee, same thing is going to happen, all these people are going to get out of prison. Crime is the lowest it’s been in the last 25 years, that’s not affecting the overall crime rate. It’s not putting people in grave danger but change is hard – very hard for people. And it’s tough for people or chiefs, I think, to take on the organization once they make a statement.
What do you think of opponents’ argument that stealing a gun that is less than $950 would be labeled a misdemeanor and would be dangerous?
That’s kind of fear-mongering. If you go into a house and steal a gun, that’s burglary, that’s a felony. If you go into a building, not a house but a business, and steal a gun, that’s a felony. If you break into a car, and steal a gun, that’s a felony. If you’re a felon with a gun, that’s a felony. If you’re caught with a gun that you know is stolen and loaded, that’s a felony. There are so many laws that, if they choose to charge it, to make it still a felony.
Do you think their concerns have validity?
Well, it doesn’t have validity once you realize there’s so many charges you can put on someone to make it a felony if you want to make it a felony.
What happens if the proposition passes or doesn’t pass?
If it doesn’t pass they’ll have to keep doing exactly what they’re doing now. They’re going to have to build more prisons, and it’s going to be a failure.
Here’s what’ll happen [if it does pass]: one, you save money. Over a five-year window, projected by the state not me, it’ll bring $1.2 billion back into the state to put into treatment, not when you’re getting into prison or getting out but before you even get there. It’s going to invest in what’s most important: the kids in school. If you go to the inner-city schools, you begin to understand a little bit more that some kids in some schools with high dropout rates need some assistance and help. This money will put it there and keep them out of jail and prison. It’ll stop this birth-to-prison pipeline.
Here’s what Zimmerman had to say about her fierce opposition to the proposition.
Why do you think Proposition 47 is a bad idea?
First of all, I want voters to look not just at what the proposition says on the title, what I would ask is that all voters take time to actually fully understand what they’re voting for with Proposition 47.
It’s going to make eligible 10,000 felons who have prior convictions for armed robbery, kidnapping, carjacking, child abuse, burglary, arson, assault with a deadly weapon and many other serious crimes eligible for early release.
Right now, judges have discretion. It takes away that discretion because it makes certain felonies now misdemeanors, but misdemeanors every single time. So if you are in possession of a date rape drug today, it’s a misdemeanor. If you’re in possession of that drug tomorrow, it’s a misdemeanor. If you’re in possession of it 20 times, it’s a misdemeanor. It takes away the discretion of the judge for incremental and more serious penalties, and it’s the exact same thing as theft. No matter how many times, it’s a misdemeanor.
I had the privilege and the honor to speak at a graduation of drug court just a few weeks ago. And let me tell you a bit about drug court. These individuals were facing felonies on their drug charges, and that was the catalyst. It was the catalyst because they were facing severe penalties to get them clean and sober, and story upon story, these graduates told was that finally because they were facing these serious penalties and felony charges it really was instrumental ensuring that they completed the program. And I’m concerned that now that we’re making these crimes misdemeanors, that’s going to actually de-incentivize these individuals from seeking treatment programs.
Why do you think Chief Lansdowne would propose something like this?
I’m not going to speak for him, I’ll speak for myself.
What happens if the proposition passes or doesn’t pass?
What this means for San Diego is what it means for our entire state, it’s going to make eligible 10,000 felons, many of them with a violent criminal history, eligible for early release. It’s also going to de-incentivize programs that are shown to work, like the drug court.
My background, I’ve worked narcotics several different times in my 32 years at this police department, including as the Voice has written, undercover in the high schools . And there were students and others throughout my career, they stay away from using some of these more serious drugs … cocaine, methamphetamine, because it is a felony and they wouldn’t even think about trying these because of the penalties and because they know it’s a felony. Now by making it a misdemeanor, I am concerned that those that wouldn’t have the predisposition to try it because they were afraid of the consequences will now try that.
Are there any other concerns you have?
I do want to talk about the firearms. Some of the people that are in favor of it are saying it’s already a felony if you break into a house and steal a gun. Yes, we understand that. But again, people who do drugs are often invited into the house where they do drugs together. And many times people use drugs have weapons available. So, if you’re invited into that house to use drugs, which often happens, and there’s a firearm there and you steal that firearm and it’s less than $950, that would’ve been an automatic felony, just by stealing that firearm. But if it’s under $950 and it’s not a burglary, you right there committed a felony, but now you now just made it a misdemeanor.
I understand what they are trying to do with this, I understand about treatment programs and that’s why I’m so in favor of drug court.
I think I’ll give you this analysis: Would you rather have the best cardiologist after you’ve had a heart attack, or would you want to prevent the heart attack? I think everyone would agree that we would want to prevent a heart attack. Same thing in the police force, would you prefer to prevent crime before it happens or respond to crime after it happens.