Introduction to Cop World II

Introduction: America’s Finest City

San Diego makes no bones about it. It’s been “America’s Finest City” since 1972, when Mayor Pete Wilson said so.

Like most enduring marketing phrases, “America’s Finest” doesn’t so much proclaim a truth as conjure a promise. The city of San Diego is framed by beaches, bays, and harbors to the west, mountains and deserts to the east, Disneyland and Hollywood’s sound stages an hour’s drive to the north, and Mexico’s Baja frontier to the south. Wrap the whole package inside a utopian climate and the fantastical promise seems nearly realized.

It’s inside the wrapping where reality lives and the promise is broken. In San Diego’s real world, people get murdered and raped or wake up next to violent spouses whose every breath carries the threat of verbal or physical attack. No fancy words can change the fact that America’s Finest City is just like any other American metropolis. Policing the streets of San Diego is serious business.

About the same time Wilson coined his “America’s Finest City” slogan, the San Diego Police Department started shifting away from traditional policing strategies, trying to forge positive relationships with angry and militant community groups. Chief Ray Hoobler ordered the patrol fleet painted white to soften the department’s public image. Almost simultaneously, the SDPD became perhaps the first major department in the country to implement an innovative Community Oriented Policing (COP) program, under the urging of Captain Norm Stamper.

Bill Kolender, who replaced Hoobler as chief in 1975, pushed the community policing accelerator. Kolender and Stamper formed a perfect pair to transform the SDPD. Kolender offered his rock star status—the fruit of years spent building strong relations within the community—and his legendary people skills that made him as popular with his employees as with the public. Norm Stamper, determined to either leave law enforcement or transform it, percolated with ideas for reform. He resigned as a sworn captain in 1976, but Kolender persuaded him to stay on as a civilian ombudsman and push his change agenda from the inside. Mesmerized observers saw the revolutionary shift as complete.

In 1980, British author James McClure rode along with officers of the SDPD’s Central Division and, in 1984, published what he observed in his book “Cop World.” He touted COP and commented on the SDPD’s simple accoutrements, including its white cars and tan, patch-free uniforms. Kolender told him the effect was deliberate. Making officers appear innocuous fit well with Stamper’s community oriented policing concept, which stressed greater police department accountability to the public and a department that functioned more like the public’s partner in crime-solving than as a paramilitary force devoted to writing tickets and making arrests.

In a 2009 personal email, I asked Mr. Stamper to define his vision of community policing. He wrote that it starts with “citizen participation and a fundamental belief that the local police department belongs to the people, not the other way around. [It] requires the agency to open itself up to a genuine partnership with the community. . . . COP requires a deep, sustained, institutionalized, and top-to-bottom commitment to authentic community-police partnerships. The organization needs to undergo fundamental structural and cultural change. Citizens need to be meaningfully and irrevocably involved in everything from policy making to oversight. Cops and community [need to] work together, in disciplined, methodical fashion to identify, analyze, and solve problems and evaluate progress.”

In the ‘70s, incorporating this kind of utopian philosophical change into the daily operations of an inherently conservative organization proved impossible. The absence of necessary system-wide operational changes killed reform the same way black rot withers leaves on a grapevine, desiccating the grapes into mummified fruit before the harvest.

In particular, no one trained street supervisors in how to evaluate officers under the new system. Instead, supervisors clung to the old way of doing business and evaluated officers on the numbers of work units they generated—tickets, field interviews, arrests, and investigations.

This put street cops in a bind. How could they adopt the official COP line when the quality of their evaluations plummeted along with the quantity of their recordable work units?

Like generals who watch battles from a hilltop, missing the fighting on the valley floor, the department’s upper echelons probably never fully appreciated the street-level resistance to community policing. Before the resistance could be eradicated, the SDPD’s Southeastern Division started shifting to Problem Oriented Policing, or POP, under Captain Jerry Sanders. It spread throughout the department from there.

In keeping with San Diego’s forward-thinking tradition, Sanders’ reforms made the SDPD one of the first major American police departments to implement POP strategies. While COP intended cops to become academic beat experts, POP added a stress on analyzing and solving ongoing beat problems. “Problems” included such things as apartment complexes populated by drug dealers, chronic drag-racing on neighborhood streets, and graffiti-blighted bridges over freeways.

Problem solving followed a process known as SARA, an acronym for scanning, analyzing, responding to, and assessing responses to ongoing community problems. As part of the response process, officers were taught to form partnerships with other “stakeholders,” gather appropriate resources, and work in concert with stakeholder partners to implement solutions on their beats.

But POP, like COP, required inordinate time commitment and personnel deployments while the police radio continued dictating the activities of officers on the beats. Calls of domestic violence, traffic accidents, felonies in progress, and other high-priority directives made it almost impossible to attend to anything else. This program, too, lived a short life.

Reforms come from people, and people have to maintain and nurture them. Yet realized individual ambitions can thwart progress. Promotions, retirements, transfers, and job changes sometimes leave innovative programs withering in their creators’ dusty trails.

Sanders parlayed the POP reform into the chief’s job in 1993, while overleaping Norm Stamper, who had long since rejoined the sworn ranks and occupied the position of executive assistant chief of police. Sanders’ victory prompted Stamper to move to Seattle as that city’s police chief a few months later. Sanders retired in 1999, taking the helm at San Diego’s United Way instead, and much of his POP reform dried up and withered away in his absence.

How worrisome is the demise of COP and its younger sibling? In fact, for the SDPD rank and file, it’s a disguised blessing. Although James McClure missed it during his time studying the SDPD, a maelstrom was forming in San Diego’s policing waters while he wrote his book. As the department rolled out its innovative strategies, its officers died at the highest per capita rate in the nation while suffering the second highest injury rate from violent assaults. America’s Finest City was a deadly place to wear a police uniform.

One man stood as a stunned and heartbroken witness to the changing policing world as the police department worked to improve community relations. Charlie Riggs’ compelling personal story epitomizes the violence that swirled around San Diego’s cops in the 1980s. His own twenty-year police career began a decade before the implementation of COP, and for most of his career Charlie believed police work represented not only an honorable but a safe profession. This belief inspired his enthusiastic support for my already burgeoning interest in police work.

Charlie attended my police academy graduation in the summer of 1978, but before he did, he saved me some money. He told me uniform dress jackets, a requirement for the graduation ceremony, were expensive and unnecessary; the only other occasion calling for a dress jacket was a fellow officers’ job-related funeral—an unlikely event. Charlie borrowed a dress jacket for me. I returned it after having it cleaned.

In 1980, Charlie’s son Tom joined me in the ranks of the police department. Tim Ruopp, the young man who’d married Charlie’s daughter Kathy, joined him in 1982. Charlie’s positive view of policing almost certainly catalyzed their career choices.

They joined a police department intent on building community partnerships in the name of COP. As part of that effort, the department aggressively and minutely investigated every citizen’s complaint about real, imagined, or maliciously made-up allegations of police misconduct and frequently meted out discipline unrelated to the original citizen allegations.

I had several conversations with officers at the time who believed fear of onerous disciplinary practices made them tentative during enforcement actions. They also believed similar fears probably contributed to deaths and injuries among their peers. Other reasons had to do with unrelated tactical errors that needed to be fixed through better training.

In the early morning darkness on September 14, 1984, while patrolling an obscure extension of San Diego’s Balboa Park, Tim Ruopp spied two young men drinking alcohol accompanied by two girls who looked under age. Tim contacted the foursome and called for a cover unit. Kimberly Tonahill, a twenty-four-year-old female officer with only nine months’ experience on the streets, drove to his aid.

Tonahill began writing a citation to one of the men, Joselito Cinco, as Tim walked the girls to his police car for their ride home. With Tim’s attention turned elsewhere, Cinco pushed Officer Tonahill, pulled a 9mm handgun from his jacket, and shot her repeatedly. One bullet found the seam between the panels of her bulletproof vest and killed her.

Before Tim could react, Cinco shot him in the head. As the officers lay on the ground Cinco towered above. He shot them over and over again before opening the back door to Tim’s police car and telling the girls to climb out and run away with him. They scurried away and cowered under a park bench instead.

As Officer Gary Mitrovich neared the entrance to the park, he heard the shots and saw two officers on the ground. He couldn’t see Cinco or his friend, Victor Casillas, until they popped their heads up from behind Ruopp’s police car. Cinco fired, wounding Mitrovich in the shoulder. Mitrovich shot off part of Cinco’s ear as the gunman ran toward a wooded area of the park.

SWAT officers found Cinco hiding in a patch of shrubbery. The man who’d told friends he’d never go back to jail gave up without a fight. He later hanged himself in prison.

Subsequent dissection of this and other police murders revealed the need for “contact and cover” tactics. Officers were allowing their attention to be diverted, with deadly consequences. One officer needed to conduct all enforcement actions while the other watched and protected.

On March 31, 1985, just six months after the murders of Tim Ruopp and Kimberly Tonahill, Chief Kolender knocked on Charlie Riggs’ door, obliged to rescind the promise he’d made the night Cinco murdered the sergeant’s son-in-law—that he’d never again ring Charlie’s doorbell with such devastating news.

That afternoon, Tom Riggs had responded to a radio call initiated by fellow police agent Donovan Jacobs. Jacobs intended to stop a truck occupied by several black males who matched the description of suspects who’d brandished a gun in an incident earlier that day.

After initiating the stop, Jacobs asked the driver, Sagon Penn, for his driver’s license. Penn thrust his wallet at Jacobs.

Following SDPD department policy, Jacobs asked Penn to take the license from the wallet and hand it to him. Jacobs grabbed Penn by the shoulder as he walked away in defiance. Penn started to fight, the two fell to the ground, and a volatile neighborhood crowd gathered.

When Tom Riggs arrived, he snatched his baton from his gun belt to fend off the festering crowd while a female ride-along by the name of Sarah Pena Ruiz sat in his car’s front passenger seat. Sagon Penn yanked Jacobs’ gun from his holster, shot Jacobs in the neck, and fired three times at Riggs while Jacobs lay on top of him. The third bullet ruptured Riggs’ abdominal aorta and killed him. Like his brother-in-law a few months before, Tom had no time to react to the deadly threat.

Penn walked to the front of Riggs’ police car and shot twice through the windshield, hitting Pena Ruiz both times. Out of bullets, Penn knew where to find another gun. He yanked Tom’s revolver from his holster before climbing into Donovan Jacobs’ police car, driving over Jacobs’ wounded body, and driving away.

Remarkably, during the course of two trials, Penn achieved acquittal on some charges and benefited from hung juries on those remaining. Penn’s attorney, Milton Silverman, successfully depicted his client as a victim of unnecessarily aggressive police tactics who’d shot Jacobs, Riggs, and Pena Ruiz in self-defense and had to drive over Jacobs to get away.

His court triumphs didn’t lead to a happy life. On July 4, 2002, Penn, like Cinco, committed suicide.

The on-duty murders of Tim Ruopp, Kimberly Tonahill, and Tom Riggs, together with the wounding of Gary Mitrovich, Donovan Jacobs, and Sarah Pena Ruiz, comprised only part of the spate of deadly police encounters in the 1980s. But Tom’s death forced the horrifying recognition that San Diego’s cops needed a better way to do their jobs if they wanted to go home at the end of their shifts. Kolender and Stamper made a commitment to do whatever was necessary to address officer safety, beginning with forming an officer safety task force in April 1985. The twenty-two-week task force required 60,000 personnel hours and made 119 recommendations in a 111-page report released in December of 1985.

Although initially rejected, the task force’s recommendations to toughen up the officers’ image by painting the patrol fleet black and white and dressing patrol officers in dark blue uniforms eventually took hold. The new cars hit the streets in 1988, and the officers driving them wore dark blue uniforms with elaborate patches beginning in 1995.

Although the report never recommended it directly, a major training shift that followed its release emphasized more aggressive responses to potentially deadly threats. Perhaps inevitably, the pendulum of change swung far in the opposite direction. San Diego’s officers started killing at a significantly elevated rate, which required yet another look at how the SDPD conducted business. In 1991, the department formed a citizen’s task force to figure out how to reduce police shootings. Since then, the rate of SDPD shootings has been more in line with the national average.

As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Similarly, the history of San Diego’s policing in recent decades sets the scene for what cops encounter in the San Diego of 2009.

Since the days of Cop World, the SDPD’s Central Division has evolved from three amorphous communities in a city with a decidedly small-town feel into sixteen distinct neighborhoods integral to a thrumming metropolis. Balboa Park, Hillcrest, and the Heights have fractured into Balboa Park, Barrio Logan, East Village, the Gaslamp Quarter, Golden Hill, Grant Hill, Harborview, Horton Plaza, Little Italy, Logan Heights, Marina, Memorial, Park West, Sherman Heights, South Park, and Stockton, with a combined population of nearly 86,000 people packed into roughly 9.7 square miles.

The almost provincial downtown that in the early 1980s sported only haggard single-room-occupancy hotels for housing units is now laced with upscale townhouses and high-rise condominium complexes. The San Diego Padres baseball team has relocated from a multi-use stadium in San Diego’s flood plain to an expansive downtown location across the street from a huge convention center overlooking the thriving North Island Naval Air Station across the bay.

The landscape of buildings, though limited to 500 feet in height because of Lindbergh Field, San Diego’s busy international airport on the northern edge of downtown, now looks worthy of a major city. While Phoenix and Houston have surpassed San Diego’s 1.4 million population, shifting San Diego’s status from sixth largest to eighth largest city in the nation, the city feels bigger and vibrates with a twenty-first-century pulse that promises an exciting future.

San Diego’s once large commercial tuna fishing fleet is now a ghost industry. The former Naval Training Center, since converted to commercial Liberty Station, is a collection of housing tracts, upscale eateries, and wine bars. New biotech and pharmaceutical research industries thrive, and the resilient tourism industry shows no sign of slowing down.

For the SDPD, protecting tourists and the money they bring along is a high priority, but so is taking care of the city’s residents. Based on crime statistics, the department successfully lives up to the challenge, but the odds are stacking up against them.

Some aspects of POP remain, partly because it’s always been more operational then philosophical, giving it a tactical edge over the earlier community policing emphasis. POP’s remnants include SIP, a Serial Inebriate Program designed to help chronic drunks turn their lives around, and HOT, a Homeless Outreach Team with a similar strategy for the homeless. Other programs include PERT, the Psychological Emergency Response Team that partners mental health professionals with specially trained officers to assist the mentally ill, a Drug Court that incorporates rehabilitation with incarceration, and the Graffiti Strike Force that strives to eradicate graffiti vandalism.

The current police chief, William Lansdowne, runs a traditional-style department harkening back to the days before community policing. His practical approach is respected throughout all levels of the department.

The slogan on the sides of San Diego’s black-and-white police cars still reads “To Protect and Serve,” but “America’s Finest” is stenciled above it. Apparently, convincing San Diegans they live in the best city in the nation requires constant effort. Maybe it’s because San Diego’s cops and the citizens they serve have suffered through decades of political and fiscal mismanagement since the early ‘80s. Detailing San Diego’s recent scandals would require a book the size of the California Penal Code.

The most far-reaching and consequential scandal, the one that directly impacts San Diego’s police force, stems from a multiyear underfunding of the city employees’ pension fund. In 2000 and 2001, the fund’s already deficient value plummeted. In 2002, the pension board and city council voted to decrease funding requirements while simultaneously increasing benefits for city employees, including some pension board members and union leaders. In 2004, Diann Shipione, a retirement board trustee and an avid hater of then mayor Dick Murphy, publicized the reality that no money existed to pay for the benefits. Opponents excoriated her, but others knew her whistle-blowing would surely drive San Diego’s load-bearing camel of corruption to its knees.

In 2005, after Mayor Murphy chose to resign, Jerry Sanders came out of public retirement to run for mayor and won the general election. Almost simultaneously, in an effort to address the mismanagement issues, the city abandoned its strong city council/city manager government to establish a strong mayor model. On December 31, 2005, Mayor Sanders walked out of his office with mostly ceremonial powers. When he flipped the lights on at the beginning of 2006, he stood as the chief executive officer of the City of San Diego.

Yet the shifting power giving Sanders the tools he needed to govern the disheveled city rang the death knell for many of his existing relationships. As mayor, the once popular police chief now finds himself in pitched battle with the officers he used to lead. Many of Sanders’ proposed fiscal reforms erode the benefits gained by the Police Officers’ Association during decades of contract negotiations. The association won’t give them up without a fight, but senior officers, who fear losing promised benefits for the rest of their lives, are choosing to retire to preserve their legacies.

It’s a tough environment for the remaining street cops. Many feel unappreciated, both by the public who support Sanders’ efforts and by the boss they once admired. They also fear the consequences of policing San Diego’s streets without benefit of the wisdom that’s departing with their retiring colleagues.

Today’s cops also fear the prospect of organized, violent civil disobedience, crooks who carry deadlier guns than they do and can access their personal information via the internet, biological weapons that can be delivered through the mail, terrorist attacks in our schools and churches, and the pending early release of incarcerated felons due to the worsening economy.

The SDPD’s long tradition of policing its streets with too few officers is about to be sorely tested. The looming explosion of retirements will stretch the department to the snapping point. Currently budgeted for employing 2109 sworn officers, the SDPD is operating at 87 percent capacity. Nearly every conversation among police officers these days centers on who’s leaving and who’s staying. Current estimates teeter in the direction of 150 police officers of various ranks and responsibilities about to pull the plug on their careers. The rush is on to replace them.

As I write this, the city’s website says hiring tests are slated for three times per month. Personnel departments customarily space hiring tests in increments of months, not days. Hiring standards will surely suffer, and unseasoned employees can never fully replace the senior officers infused with the wisdom they’ve soaked up through decades of experience.

Why does a San Diego laboring under the weight of civic scandal, fiscal mismanagement, and deadly policing consequences still lay claim to the title of America’s Finest City? It’s easy to believe you’re in paradise when warm breezes riffle the palm fronds dangling overhead, but crooks still walk the streets beneath the trees, and that’s where San Diego’s cops ply their trade.

Let’s join them and see what it’s like to police the streets of America’s Finest City.


7 Responses to “Introduction to Cop World II”

  1. Ken Fortier Says:

    Tim, a minor point to be sure, but your reference to Chief Ray Hoobler ordering the patrol cars painted white during his tenure as police chief is not accurate. Ray was police chief 1971-1975. The shift to white cars was made in 1968, during Jim Roed’s time as chief.

    Good piece.


  2. Mike Asher Says:

    Having gone to the same Police academy as Tim I agree with everything that was written. COP and POP did nothing to help the City or the Police Officers that worked the streets.

    • Timothy B. Smith Says:

      Great to hear from you Mike. In “Cop World” McClure began the book with a history of San Diego. I open my book with my own historical perspective about events since “Cop World” came out. I have nothing but respect for everyone I wrote about in the introduction and don’t intend to impugn any of them. Still, as a writer, I have to tell the truth as I see it.

  3. policedynamics Says:

    Because of the high level of trust placed in the police, they must adhere to a higher, not a lower, code of conduct.

    Think about the powers they have. They can “take away” at least four things:

    Life, and

    Nobody else in our culture is entrusted with that kind of authority.

    Tomorrow I will be posting three videos on the Police Dynamics Media blog site that examine the three basic models of policing: reactive, proactive and coactive. I invite you to check them out after they go live and comment freely. They are relevant to the discussion here…

    “He who has been given a trust must prove himself faithful…”

    Sheriff Ray Nash
    Police Dynamics Institute

  4. Tim Jones Says:

    What an outstanding article; very well done.

    We all had to live, and some died, under the utopian world view of “leaders” like Norm Stamper, who becme Chief in Seatle , WA just in time for their little disaster during the World Trade Organization riots. Stamper had met with many of the protest organizers beforehand, had I heard him lament after the devistating riots that, “They promised they wouldn’t do this…” while all along we were trying to warm him they were promising the opposite on their web sites.

    For all his interlligence, Mr. Stamper is one of those who “just don’t get it”; that police work isn’t a thing for social experimentation; that those experiments lead to death of both cops AND citizens if they fail. Well, people died.

    In 1979, at one point San Diego’s homicide rate had exploded to almost double 1978’s…nobody at city hall flinched, while the cops almost went on strike over the lousey pay and working conditions. Most just walked away, to early retirements or other agencys, just like todays cops.

    Thanks to San Diego’s reputation as a laid-back, small time city, we enjoy sunshine and a lower than average violent crime rate. But when the reports aren’t taken, the bean counters say it didn’t happen, and continue to “under report” what’s really happening on the mean streets in the crime ridden areas. Not everyone can afford to live in the “nice” parts of San Diego; those that don’t, know the truth. San Diego has been under-policed my entire life, and certainly through out my career here.

    The politicians’ excuse has always been the same – costs, verses what they really want to spend our money on, which of course is their own pet projects and re-election, not pulbic safety. The Fire Department has the same ills, which is why so many people died in the October 2003 fires – not enough cops, not enough firemen, not enough common sence…

    Thank You for such a great reminder. My family was facinated, and horrified. I look forward to reading these books soon.
    …and thanks for being such a good cop and good example to this once young rookie – those were the days…

    Tim Jones
    SDPD,Retired 2004.

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