Getting to know our public servants: David Surwilo – Community Relations Officer

by on January 13, 2010 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, OB Heroes, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Police rep Survilo

Community Relations Officer David Surwilo. Photo: Mary E Mann.

Editor: The OB Rag is beginning a series on ‘Getting to know our public servants’ with this report by Mary E Mann of an interview with OB’s Community Relations Officer.

Picture your high school guidance counselor in a police uniform, and you have a pretty good idea of Officer David Surwilo, the one and only community relations officer in San Diego Police Department’s Western Division.

The Western Division is huge and diverse, comprised of North Park, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Linda Vista, Hotel Circle, Fashion Valley, Old Town, Sports Arena, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, and the airport area. Surwilo used to manage this area with three other officers, with four different “storefront” offices. That was in the sunny days before budget cuts hit the SDPD hard, and three officers and three storefronts were cut, leaving only Surwilo and his office on Sports Arena.

“With the lack of resources in staffing, sometimes I’m only able to point people in the right direction,” Surwilo admits, “but at least it’s a direction, when before they didn’t know which way to go.”

This is a large part of Surwilo’s job, which is something like a cross between a therapist and a cop. People come to him or call him when they have issues to vent about, when they have been victimized and want to know how to prevent it happening again, or if they have a dispute. People call him for anything and everything. Some calls he forwards on to the concerned departments. Other calls are more nebulous, and don’t fit into any of those slots. These are the calls that Surwilo deals with himself.

“My purpose is to answer people’s questions, and try to help them resolve issues that are and are not law-enforcement related. Let’s say you are disputing with a neighbor over a mutual fence. Is that a law-enforcement issue? No. Could it become something uglier? Yes.”

Surwilo encourages people to come to him first with such issues, instead of letting disputes escalate. A number of years ago, two neighbors in a San Diego neighborhood were squabbling over a rosebush that lay on the property line. Officers responded to a call about it, and things got out of control. Two officers were shot, and were killed.

Seeking to prevent such unnecessary incidences is a big part of Surwilo’s position as community relations’ officer. But his office is open to anyone, including, he says with just a little laugh, a woman that regularly comes in once or twice a week just to vent.

“Sometimes people just want to be heard,” he shrugs. Surwilo seems to take pleasure in the quirks of the people he meets through his job.

A community relations officer is a non-threatening alternative within the police force, hence the casual and independent “storefront” office, instead of an office in a busy bureau. The entire concept of community relations officers, Surwilo says, was initiated as a way to reach out to people after the national youth uprising against the police in the 1960’s. Ocean Beach was a particularly fractious neighborhood at the time, and the community as a whole was pitted so strongly against the police that vestiges still remain.

Obecians are quick to take care of their own, as evidenced by the strong local reactions just this past year to the case of Chris Bowd, the dog that was shot on Newport, the fire-spinners who received tickets by Dog Beach, and the current issues with the firepits. OB seems to be a neighborhood suspicious of outside help, especially from the SDPD.

As a representative of SDPD, Surwilo is working hard to change that. He visits OB regularly, making his face a well-known feature in the Mainstreet Association office and in businesses on Newport Avenue (he in fact refers to Claudia Jackson in the Mainstreet Association office as “the man” – in a good way).

“It’s in our interest to listen to the community and what their concerns are,” Surwilo says, “I think that we’re getting better at trying to hear what the community has to say.”

When policemen shot an attacking dog on Newport Avenue this past October, Surwilo had to parlay his face time into damage control. He met with various business owners and community members in the area, and explained to them the dogs’ violent history. According to Surwilo, the dog in a short time had attacked a number of people. Animal Regulations had impounded the animal, and a hearing was scheduled, but nobody showed up. Upon the dogs’ release, it began attacking again, and was shot by one of two policemen at the scene.

“There’s not an officer out there who wants to be involved in a shooting,” says Surwilo, “most certainly nobody wants to shoot a dog.”

In answer to why the police were there in the first place, Surwilo explains that they were undercover, responding to a volume of calls about the area. Eighty to ninety percent of police activity is call-driven, and the ten to twenty percent that is not is largely based upon call volume. For example, if there is a rash of calls about car break-ins in a certain area, a police officer may go to that area even if there isn’t a call, just to do an extra patrol.

“Sometimes people think cops are being mean or hard, but we are just responding to radio calls and trying to assist the community.”

So, essentially, when there is a spike in police activity in a certain area, it is directly correlated to a spike in calls. Police activity is community-driven, which can come as a surprise in a community as traditionally independent as Ocean Beach.

“Ocean Beach is evolving greatly, the free spirit mentality has changed to yes, free spirit, but with some responsibility.”

Evidence of this shift can be seen everywhere, from beach and graffiti clean-ups to independent homeowners hanging bag dispensers for the poo of passing dogs. Police are factoring into this equation naturally, as they receive calls on party houses or on vagrancy, their two biggest issues in Ocean Beach. Violent crime is down in the city as a whole.

Surwilo responds to these calls, channeling vagrant complaints to the SDPD’s Homeless Outreach Team. He gives advice and guidance where he can, telling owners of party houses what they can do to still have fun without enraging the neighbors, and advising people who have had recent break-ins on locks they can use, or how they can light their house to keep it more secure. All in all, he prefers his job in community relations to his previous position doing enforcement.

“I felt like I kept going to the same places and putting a band-aid on something, because I had to go to the next call. As opposed to now, it’s like, ok, what can I do to help you. It’s really satisfying.”

And out of the entire Western Division that he is responsible for, Surwilo swears that his favorite community to work with is Ocean Beach.

“Seriously, my nine-year-old daughter wants to move to Ocean Beach. If I could afford it, I would.”

Do you have questions or concerns about your neighborhood? Feel free to call David Surwilo at 619-531-1540, email at surwilo@pd.sandiego.gov, or speak to him face to face at the storefront on Sports Arena, in an innocuous location behind Phil’s BBQ.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie January 13, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Thanks Mary, for putting a human face on a department that often is seen as a uniform. I sent Officer Surwilo a thank-you email, as well.

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avatar Molly January 13, 2010 at 11:19 pm

With Mary’s post as a window, we can peer into the complexities that exist in a community’s relationship with the police department, for here we’re introduced not to a shield, a gun, a helmet, nor a billyclub, but a human, David Surwilo – a seemingly nice guy who’s there to help us citizens – for he is the community relations guy. And he is doing his job.

But we also see – with the cut-backs – how this officer is part of a city work force that has also been hammered – now he’s doing what – 4 used to do. Ah, isn’t that what’s happening across the city? So, we can view police officers in a different light – we can see their commonality with the rest of those (still) working.

Therefore, we must mediate our understanding of police officers – as not simply gendarmes guarding the establishment, who historically in OB’s case have had quite a checkered relationship with the community (and this blog has published numerous articles on this history) – but also as common working people who with their own job and trade issues can possibly be appealed to on issues that directly affect most citizens in this time of great recession.

Of course, this tactic on the road of social and economic change has been “tried” in numerous countries and societies over the last couple hundred years – for example in Paris 1968 – with mixed results.

Part of the history of the relationship between residents of OB and the police has been the issue of length of time on the OB beat. The police used to have officers switch every 6 months. This does not allow for any kind of development of a relationship between the community and the individual officers. I don’t know what the time is now these days.

However, I have heard complaints from OBcians of late – over the past 6 months at least – of a certain heavy-handedness by officers. And I cite what happened last Spring with the annual midnight parade of the clowns, as one example. Another example is what happened to the fire burners. If all this is true, this could be the result of inadequate time in the community for the individual officers.

Yet as far as I know, there doesn’t seem any platform or any community group that is willing to investigate these incidents and if anything of substance is found, approach the police with a need to discuss these issues.

David Surwilo does seem like a really nice guy, someone you could call up if you have an issue, problem, comment , complaint or question.

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avatar Shane Finneran January 15, 2010 at 7:54 am

“what happened last Spring with the annual midnight parade of the clowns”
——-
I haven’t heard of the annual midnight parade of clowns, or what happened last Spring. Could anyone elaborate?

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avatar Editor January 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Shane – we ran a piece within OB Flashes last November:

Last Spring’s Annual OB Heathen Parade Drew Police Wrath

Every Spring, right around the middle of May, the Heathens of OB stage a midnight parade of silliness and fun. Hundreds have joined in as the usually-costumed paraders move from Brighton to Newport and then to the beach. There’s usually a bonfire at the end, also. This has been going on for 7 years.

This past May’s event, however, was very different, as OB Rag has just found out. This year the event drew angry San Diego police officers who dispersed the revelers upon threat of arrest. For the previous six years, police had been very tolerant and easy-going, allowing the non-permitted parade to be carried out without trouble or problems.

This year, as it turned out, the hundreds of paraders were harassed by police officers along the route – from Brighton to Newport and then to the beach. Individuals were taken aside and questioned by officers. One common question was ‘who’s the leader?’

The Heathens, begun by the residents of an apartment complex on the 4900 block of Brighton, are a loose-knit crowd, without leaders, who are into celebrating spontaneity and quiet craziness. It is an event traditionally organized by word of mouth and emails. It involves hundreds of locals, as well as “heathens” from other parts of the city. Each year there’s a theme – this past year it was clowns – so many people wore clown outfits. But the police weren’t laughing.

I spoke to two participants who described to me the scene. This year, I was told, there were “angry cops everywhere.” Once the crowd reached the beach and began to have their bonfire north of the lifeguard station, they were swarmed by at least 20 blue uniforms. People were threatened with arrest if they didn’t immediately disperse. It was a sour ending to what’s usually and traditionally been a fun parade. “The cops just didn’t want this thing to happen,” I was told.

My contacts around the beach have offered up that recently the police in OB have been cracking down on a lot of things. This was one event – another possible tie-in was the citing by police of a troupe of fire performers down at the beach – performers who were just found not guilty by a judge – but who had to go to court for something officers in the past had allowed. Any one with ideas?

Here’s the link: http://obrag.org/?p=15148 with photo as well.

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avatar Shane Finneran January 17, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Frank, thanks much for filling me in. Somehow I hadn’t heard of the Heathens and their parade. And I’ve lived on Brighton for the last seven years!

I won’t be living on Brighton this May, but nonetheless will look to get involved with the event…if people are taking to the streets and “celebrating spontaneity and quiet craziness” then I want to be a part of it!

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avatar Mary January 13, 2010 at 11:37 pm

I interviewed Sergeant Cedrun, who is in charge of this division, for a previous article and found that some of that is true – her and her officers that gave the fire-burners tickets were somewhat new to the area at the time.

But the most intriguing thing that I heard from Officer Surwilo was how much of police activity is driven by calls – 80-90%. If people feel that the police are being heavy-handed, it seems most likely that it is a result of an increase in calls, rather than a sea change within the force. That brings up a whole separate slew of issues, I guess.

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avatar justmy2cents January 14, 2010 at 7:41 am

Police Officers are in a lose/lose…If you react to something you acted to fast / if they don’t react they get blame for not doing a job….indeed 20/20 is perfect vision after the fact.
jm2c….

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avatar jettyboy January 14, 2010 at 8:01 am

Police, OB, Kumbaya, am I getting that right?

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avatar lane tobias January 14, 2010 at 8:59 am

Molly – ive also heard about some recent heavy handedness by the police, specifically in dealing with a number of alcohol related incidents on Newport around the time bars shut down.

I guess on one hand, people can complain about cops being too stern, but on the other hand it seems theres a good chance local residents have complained about unruly behavior around that time (i have a neighbor who constantly complains to me about how OB is slowly turning into PB….mostly due to crowds on Newport and Voltaire around the bars.) Community Relations Officers seem to be a good way to bridge the gap in communities where mistrust of the police is fairly common. Kudos to Mary for putting a friendly face on the police presence in OB, and kudos to Officer Surwilo for explaining the dog shooting and further explanations behind increased police presence.

That being said, I’m not too sure I consider the presence here to be THAT large. How many cars are on patrol in the Western Division at any given time? I gather to say I really only see black and whites when something happens or when there’s a call, not on a regular basis.

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avatar Catherine January 14, 2010 at 11:58 am

Very interesting interview. Thanks Mary and Officer Surwilo. I actually see at least one police car patrolling OB every day usually more. If there’s an uptick in cracking down on the alcohol-related incidents that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Drunk people cause problems and collisions. The bars themselves should do more on that end because they routinely over serve patrons to the point of intoxication and beyond. I have seen several people refused entry to bars on Newport, which is a good thing, but they were also totally blasted at the time.

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avatar Former Obecian Living Down-Under January 17, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I moved from OB in 2007 to Sydney, Australia (I do get back occasionally) and even though I’m 7000 plus miles away I do read the OB Rag weekly. This is an excellent story (as are most stories here in the Rag). The article underscores the tough finanical times that local governments in the States are under – an example of which is that SDPD has had to cut down on its community relations officers and storefront shops. Mary Mann’s reporting here truly adds a human face to the police department. Too often we don’t see that side to our police. Thanks Mary and OB Rag!

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avatar Frank Gormlie January 18, 2010 at 9:34 am

Hey Former OBecian – thanks for visiting. Are you into writing something like “A view of Sydney by a former OBcean”??

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avatar CJ January 22, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Many in this community need to wake-up. There is a significant amount of property crime in Ocean Beach. We have a fair share of violent crime as well. Frequent aggravated assaults and a homicide last summer on our streets. I would suggest that community members subscribe to eWatch at
This will let you know what goes on around OB daily that doesn’t make the local news.
Do you really want the SDPD to back off the community and let the “free spirit” keep the peace? A visable police presence does help keep the peace that makes a community a desirable place to live.

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