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 email@example.com, or speak to him face to face at the storefront on Sports Arena, in an innocuous location behind Phil’s BBQ.