When National City Was a 'Cowboy Police Department' - Voice of San Diego

Public Safety UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

When National City Was a 'Cowboy Police Department'

In defense of the National City Police Department, Mayor Ron Morrison pointed to dark days in the 1980s to emphasize how far the department has come. The police chief at the time relished what he called “a kick-ass, take names” culture and brought a federal civil rights probe on the city.

A National City police officer monitors a City Council meeting. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

As activists continue to put pressure on National City officials following the death of Earl McNeil, Mayor Ron Morrison has praised the Police Department — and made a point to emphasize how far it’s come.

McNeil fell into a coma after his May arrest, for reasons that are still unclear, and his family pulled him off life support in June.

A medical examiner’s report is expected in mid-August.

In response to protests by community members and activists over the city’s refusal to release body camera footage of McNeil’s arrest and other details about what happened, Morrison has stood by the department.

He told Voice of San Diego that the department has made great strides in terms of how it goes about hiring officers, and made an alarming claim:

Thirty years ago, he said, the city’s police chief intentionally picked up officers who had been dismissed by other agencies for being too aggressive.

“We had a reputation for being a cowboy police department, but that has not been true for 25 years,” he said. “The police department today is nowhere near that nature.”

Indeed, in 1987 the Los Angeles Times portrayed a department marred by brutality and lawlessness.

During National City Police Chief Terry Hart’s tenure in the 1980s, the city had sustained such a high number of citizen complaints that the FBI and other local law enforcement agencies in the region began to investigate, according to the Times. The San Diego Police Department said two of its own cops had been injured by National City officers while collaborating on an arrest.

A former National City police officer described to the Times how one night he and others had pulled up on a field of Latino youth playing Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” mimicking a famous Vietnam war scene from “Apocalypse Now.”

Eventually, the FBI opened a civil rights probe based on complaints that National City was targeting its immigrant population, regularly beating up people and releasing them without charges, and routinely entering and searching homes without a warrant.

Hart denied that his officers were targeting Latinos without probable cause. Although Hart blamed activists and defense attorneys for creating a wedge between police and the community, he didn’t mind the tough perception of his cops.

“National City has had a reputation for being a kick-ass, take names type of department,” he told the Times.

Then-District Attorney Edwin Miller told the paper he’d tried to get Hart to take the complaints more seriously and establish a stronger policy against excessive force, but he was unable to change Hart’s “attitude and philosophy” toward police work.

In a 1985 interview with the Star News, Hart gave a sense of that philosophy: “I know there are segments of the community that are fearful. I don’t mind. It gives us more control. Generally, law-abiding people don’t feel that way. Officers have the resolve to see the problem through, even if it means the lawful use of force. That’s a positive reputation,” he said.

The city manager fired Hart in 1988, emphasizing a dispute over finances. The Times reported that Hart had alienated residents by threatening to quit and take officers elsewhere if the voters didn’t approve a bond measure and build them a new police building.

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