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An interview with Escondido’s police chief, Cal State San Marcos staff and students insist black voices should get more attention and more in our biweekly roundup of North County news.
There’s long been tension between Escondido’s black and brown communities and the city’s police force. At the urging of activists, city leaders, police officers and community members kneeled together to protest George Floyd’s death.
Yusef Miller, a member of he Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and an Escondido resident, commended the city’s leaders members for joining his group and other activist groups, Escondido Indivisible and Together We Will, on June 3.
“There’s an outside and inside gate,” he said. “The outside gate is politics. The inside gate is bills. The inside gate is change and reform. The outside gate is large protests.”
One of the most striking comments I heard from demonstrations last week, alongside the devastating stories of racial profiling and negative encounters with law enforcement from black community members, came from Escondido City Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez.
“This is the first time I’ve seen Escondido come together and say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she said.
Martinez, who grew up in Escondido, said she’s never been to an event in her hometown where people have said the phrase in support of the black community before last week. That, for her, represented a shift in the community.
“I feel like that’s really a shift in our community or like people are feeling more comfortable coming forward and saying, you know, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I was driving by Grand Avenue and I saw a business that had a quote from Martin Luther King boarded on there and they had beautiful artwork that said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” she said. “And to me that is a very, I think, bold thing for Escondido.”
At the event, City Councilwoman Olga Diaz called for de-escalation training for first responders, data for traffic stops, more input from communities in the hiring of police leaders and more hiring of women and diverse applicants. She said the city is “not a war zone,” and that there should be fewer hires with military backgrounds and a requirement for police officers to have a psychology or sociology background.
Police reform activists in the community are pushing for some of the same changes (some would like to go further and completely defund the local law enforcement agency). The Escondido City Council was expected to discuss police funding on Wednesday.
Martinez said one of the most noticeable changes in Escondido has been the communication between the chief of police and local residents. I talked to Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso following the demonstration last week — hours before the department made a unilateral decision alongside other police departments across the country banned the use of the carotid restraint.
The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
I’ve heard you are more vocal with the community than past police chiefs in Escondido. Why do you think that’s important?
Varso: I grew up in a very small town and in a lot of ways, Escondido, although it’s a decent sized city, it still has that small-town feel. So my background is: I’ve always thought the police department really should be kind of part of the community that we should be out, that I should be approachable. And that anybody walking down the street can come up to talk to me.
What is your response to community demands now? What are you hearing that needs to change?
Varso: It’s stuff that we really have been doing for a long time. So we’re at least ahead of the curve in that way. … A specific example of that is we’re one of the only police departments in the state that I’m aware of that [has] a committee of management and use of force experts that look at every single use of force [incident]. And it could be as mild as we had to hold somebody in an arm restraint. That’s a very minimal level of force all the way to an officer-involved shooting. And they review every single one of them. And they’re looking for every detail of how the officers handled themselves. Did they make sure their camera was on? Did they give the person a warning before they used force? And if there’s a moment there where … there was misconduct, we had addressed the misconduct. But if there’s something there where it’s just ‘we could have done better,’ that’s where we’re working to get better.
So it’s things like that. George Floyd would … never have happened in Escondido. I know we wouldn’t have put our leg on somebody’s neck and pinned him to the ground. I know that in that moment that he went unconscious … we would have quickly stopped and started wearing hearing medical aid instead of just holding him down even more.
What other community complaints have you heard and how is your department adjusting?
Varso: There’s always a lot of concerns still on making sure that our police department is not working with ICE. I have heard that concern. I had a conversation with a lady just right after this wrapped up and had the opportunity to help her understand that we don’t do that anymore. Yes, the police department had a partnership with ICE at one time. We don’t anymore. The law doesn’t allow us, even if I thought that was a good idea, and I don’t, we don’t. And then it will add some reassurance. You know, if people are scared and they need the police, I don’t want them afraid to call us. I want them to call us.
We’re having a very good conversation here on, ‘How do we almost humanize the police department, right?’ … We have a line of officers that are there to hold back protesters, but is there a way for them to do that and still interact in those things and making sure that the community also understands why we have to do what we do sometimes. But also that we’re willing to hold ourselves accountable. So a lot of good conversations along those lines, just the racial injustice side of things. ‘How do we make sure that our police officers don’t act one way because they encounter somebody who’s part of our Latino community in another way because somebody is part of the community is Caucasian?’
I know there’s been a big concern between the police department and the Latino community here historically.
Varso: Yeah. And understandably so. There’s a concern there. We are always going to be answering for the questions on ICE and I’ve made it very clear that aside from what SB 54 did, my feeling is changed. It’s just not a place for locals. We have our role. Immigration is not something we should be involved in. I worry about the community being afraid to call us and making sure that we’re able to interact.
Some police departments like in San Diego have decided not to use the carotid restraint anymore. Is that something that’s still used in Escondido?
Varso: It is. It is something that we have the ability to use. Historically, we use that once every other year or so. It’s something that has been used really in moments where, and it was going, the use of force in the encounter we are having was reaching a point where it was teetering on a lethal use of force encounter. So it’s making sure it’s trying to find that right thing where we recognize the severity and that level of force. It is something I’m looking at to make sure is it time to get rid of that? If I take that away ‘Do I put my officers down in a position where they’re more likely to have to use lethal force?’ Which is an even bigger concern for me. But making sure we’re doing it the right way.’
(Note: The Escondido Police Department announced an end to using the carotid restraint, in concert with other local law enforcement agencies in the county on June 3.)
Is there anything else you think that’s important for me to know about what your department is doing now?
Varso: When I took over as chief in January, it was really important to me. Like we started the conversation for me to be out in the community and I was making that effort and then proved it. And it took a lot of that away. If there’s been one good thing that’s come out of this, it’s been an opportunity for us to get back together and for me to be able to do this and have these conversations and our police department. I’ve heard some really good conversations from our officers even talking about those moments where we’re legally justified to do something, but we recognize that the totality of what’s going on and maybe that’s not the best approach. So yeah, you’d be on legal ground, but maybe walking away is the better option. And that’s conversations that weren’t starting for me, that was conversation starting from my control officers. So it’s having a really good impact or at least a good starting place.
John Rawlins, the director of the Black Student Center at Cal State San Marcos, said after learning of the death of George Floyd he wanted to create a space for the black community to voice their feelings and have their voices heard by others across the campus community. On June 2, he hosted a forum on Zoom where black students pushed for more visibility on campus, more courses that reflect their history and the history of other marginalized groups.
Jaelyn Freeman, an alum of Cal State San Marcos, said she felt staff and administrators wouldn’t give her the time of day because she was a black, queer woman on campus.
Sunni Bates, a black student at Cal State San Marcos, questioned the need for police presence on campus but said there needed to be more black police officers within the department. She also encouraged her non-black peers to take a campus-provided ally training so they have the tools to support black students on campus.
Ariel Stevenson, the assistant director of programs and initiative for the Office of Inclusive Excellence at Cal State San Marcos, was also on the call and praised students and alum for coming forward with their stories to the campus community and noted changes that can be made on campus to better the experience for black students.
“Black voices need to be amplified,” Stevenson said — among the faculty and staff, within counseling services and “even from our alumni.”
Jay Robertson-Howell, a clinical psychologist, added that campus leaders need to make sure they hire counseling staff who represents the campus’s black students and take a second look at the $88 mental health fee on campus to ensure everyone has access to counseling services.
Rawlins, who started his position at the Black Student Center nearly one year ago, said he believes change can happen with the new campus president and other leadership officials who have taken a stance in support of black students in the past week.
“The response nationwide and even globally is so different. I’m in my mid-30s and in my generation what I’ve seen and what students have seen is, as a campus, we continue to keep issues in the forefront to include student voices and continue to push forward,” Rawlins said. “I hope kids will continue to carry on the baton and when things become normal again with daily life we won’t stop fighting.”