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Now faced with an ‘unprecedented’ spike in alleged criminal
misconduct, the San Diego Police Department no longer has its
anticorruption unit to investigate.
Shortly after Bill Lansdowne became police chief in 2003 he quietly disbanded an anticorruption unit assigned with proactively investigating the kind of criminal allegations that have recently stained the department’s public image.
On Wednesday, police announced charging one of their own with kidnapping and raping a 34-year-old woman while on duty. The officer, Daniel Dana, 26, is no longer employed by the department and was the 10th officer accused of serious or criminal misconduct in recent months.
A decade ago, a case like Dana’s would have been investigated by a seven-person anticorruption unit that specifically focused on allegations of criminal misconduct. The unit had more funding and time to investigate internal misconduct than other units, and the officers often used undercover or surveillance operations to proactively monitor their colleagues for wrongdoing.
Undercover operations involved planting money in squad cars or the pockets of suspects to check that police would properly impound it, for example. If a prostitute ever offered sexual favors to avoid arrest, officers used to consider that she might have be placed there as part of a sting by the anticorruption unit.
To maintain a level of investigative secrecy from the rest of the department, the anticorruption unit even rented its own office in Old Town for about $2,000 a month, according to City Council meeting minutes. Most special units operate out of the department’s headquarters in the East Village.
Police created the team in the early 1990s with much fanfare, but after Lansdowne became chief in 2003, it disappeared without public notice. Like other specialized units and task forces that the SDPD has pulled out of under Lansdowne, the move shifted resources internally to prioritize reactive functions like patrol rather than preventive efforts.
With the anticorruption unit gone, police reassigned the job of investigating criminal misconduct to teams specialized in the alleged crimes. Because Dana’s case involves an alleged rape, for example, it’s now being investigated by the Sex Crimes Unit.
Paul Cooper, Lansdowne’s legal and policy advisor, cited two reasons for disbanding the unit. Mainly, he said, Lansdowne felt all crimes — regardless of any affiliation with the department — should be investigated by specialists. The anticorruption unit was staffed by generalists, or investigators with a wide knowledge of many types of crimes. Lansdowne argued that specialists were more efficient.
And second, Cooper said, the move saved the cash-crunched department rent and other funding. It already had the Internal Affairs Unit to investigate violations of department policy.
“We’ve been under constraint financially since he got here,” Cooper said of Lansdowne.
Among current and former police officers interviewed about the anticorruption unit, none said its dissolution appears to have negatively impacted the quality of investigations once serious allegations like those against Dana arise. But what’s diminished over the years, several said, is the culture of self-policing that prevents misconduct altogether.
Three current officers spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concern about possible reprisals for being critical of Lansdowne’s decisions, and because they were directed from the top down to not speak with reporters unless authorized by the department’s media relations staff. Questions about the anticorruption team, officially called the Professional Standards Unit, were directed by other officers to Cooper and Executive Assistant Police Chief David Ramirez, Lansdowne’s No. 2.
Separately, the three officers said disbanding the anticorruption unit had signaled internally that monitoring for misconduct was a lower priority under Lansdowne and became one of numerous factors contributing to a culture that provides greater room for bad behavior to fester.
“That is what started this whole ball of actions,” one officer said, referring to the spike in allegations. “They’ve gotten out of control.”
Former Police Chief Bob Burgreen created the anticorruption unit around the time of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles and a spur of public outcry for more oversight of law enforcement. It added investigative teeth to the Internal Affairs Unit, which had the broad responsibility of reviewing all potential violations of department policy.
The Professional Standards Unit was staffed by veteran investigators while the Internal Affairs Unit typically got newly promoted investigative officers. If any complaint was too complex for the Internal Affairs Unit to handle within its limited time constraints, the Professional Standards Unit took over.
The Internal Affairs Unit, which continues today, is also a reactive operation. While the Professional Standards Unit would seek out and monitor for police misconduct, the Internal Affairs Unit only responds to complaints. If no one complains, police don’t investigate.
David Kennedy, who studies crime prevention and policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said anticorruption units like the one San Diego had are rare nationwide. Most law enforcement agencies only respond to complaints through internal affairs, but very few address misconduct proactively using tools like undercover agents or surveillance.
“That’s a very strong impact on the culture of the organization,” Kennedy said. “Culture here matters more than anything else. When the tone of an agency is we don’t put up with it, you’re going to have a pretty high degree of self-policing.”
At the time police announced the Professional Standards Unit they said it would also provide ethics training since officers didn’t receive any after the academy. But police today don’t recall that ever happening. Its main focus was investigations.
On Tuesday, Lansdowne announced a plan to address the recent spike in misconduct allegations that appear unparalleled to any period after the 1990s spike that spurred the anticorruption unit. Ten officers have been accused of various crimes, including drunken driving, assault, stalking and rape. Five have been formally charged in court. Dana, the officer accused of rape, appeared in court today for the first time and pleaded not guilty.
In response to the series, Lansdowne said that the department would add three or four officers to the Internal Affairs Unit, review internal policies, create a confidential hotline and boost ethics training for lower-ranking supervisors.
In a story published by the Union-Tribune on Friday, Mayor Jerry Sanders endorsed the plan and said he continues to fully support Lansdowne as the city’s police chief. He described the rash of incidents as an embarrassment and echoed Lansdowne’s assertion that it was correlated to stress among officers.
“Usually you would anticipate somebody who hasn’t been on very long because you don’t know them as well,” Sanders told the Union-Tribune. “But when you get officers with 14, 15, 17, 20 years doing stuff like this, that’s very concerning.”
However, Cooper said Lansdowne’s decision to boost staffing for internal affairs does not signal any retraction about eliminating the anticorruption unit years ago. Despite the recent spike in serious allegations, the police chief continues to support the system he created.
If the department had felt there was a need to proactively monitor its officers like the anticorruption unit did, Cooper said, it could have still done that with other specialized units in the department. But he declined to say whether the need now exists to do those types of operations.
Cooper disagreed with sentiment that losing the anticorruption unit has contributed to more misconduct. He called the anticorruption unit’s dissolution unrelated and said officers are still deterred from misconduct by the prospect of losing their jobs or going to prison.
It’s not an anticorruption team that deters bad behavior, Cooper said. “It’s the criminal justice system.”
Still, that even some officers in the department have tied the anticorruption unit with the recent wave of serious allegations resonated with Samuel Walker, a nationally renowned expert on police accountability policies.
“It’s extremely significant that officers appear to have a commitment to accountability and they want this unit and they see problems developing when it was disbanded,” Walker said. “It’s really almost unthinkable in most police departments that officers would want and would value that kind of a unit.”
In most agencies, Walker said, police officers would perceive the unit as an operation that’s simply out to get them and reject its presence.
“Things just don’t happen out of the blue,” Walker said. “Officers tend to slide into misconduct.”
I’m Keegan Kyle, the public safety reporter for voiceofsandiego.org, and I’ll be continuing to examine the recent wave of allegations against San Diego Police. If you have any insight to share, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5668.