It’s been a week now since San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne went before the TV cameras and other reporters last Wednesday, May 9th, and stated:
“I want to personally apologize to every citizen of the city of San Diego, as this behavior is not expected, nor condoned, by me or anyone in the San Diego Police Department.”
He was referring, of course, to the recent spate of allegations – he called it a “unprecedented spike” – of officer misconduct involving nine individuals from his police force, just within the last several months. Eye brows were raising all over town each time the media reported another cop arrested. There had been arrests for DUI, domestic violence, rape, excessive force, stalking, and sexual assaults. Many of the officers have been placed on administrative duty while investigations into their conduct continue, whereas some resigned and some were fired. Here’s a list of the allegations and police officers involved: check out this U-T article.
During the press conference, Chief Lansdowne offered up a seven-point plan to deal with the misconduct, implying also that the increased stress suffered by today’s officers was leading to all of this.
The very next day after the press conference, another officer was arrested, this time on very serious accusations of kidnapping and raping a 34-year-old woman while on duty. After hearing about this latest arrest in the morning paper, my partner blurted out that “cops have always been fucking women they stop, they just weren’t getting caught.”
Yet, ten San Diego cops caught in just a few months. It all seemed too much for San Diego’s image of being a clean and tidy city. There has been plenty of hand-wringing among city officials and civic boosters. Voice of San Diego reporter Keegan Kyle has punched out post after post about this police mess, deliberating following the growing scandal – and providing excellent coverage. We have found out that Chief Lansdowne had disbanded an anti-corruption unit within the Department years ago. And KPBS reporter Maureen Cavanaugh interviewed Norm Stamper, past deputy chief here in San Diego and former Seattle police chief for his insights. Norm Stamper thinks that unit – a Professional Standards Unit – should be reinstated. Stamper made a name for himself while in San Diego in community policing and efforts to “humanize” the police.
Stamper, who has a reputation for being liberally outspoken, an advocate for marijuana legalization – he’s a member of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) -, said in the interview that his initial reaction to all the allegations of police misconduct was that it is “very damaging to the reputation of a very fine police department. No question that the department has been damaged.”
Stamper, who left San Diego in 1994 when he was passed over for chief, does see a pattern of “systematic problems,” and called San Diego “dangerously under-policed,” in that the city with 400 square miles has a very small department. He did lay some of the blame on the economic stress felt by officers – some have lost their homes to foreclosure – but said that it doesn’t excuse the behavior, as lots of people are suffering economically. “It’s a mistake to lay the blame on the economy,” he said.
With 28 years as a police officer under his belt, Stamper concluded that this was about serious misconduct, that the criminal behavior of the cops on the job was for personal gain. This is not really corruption, he said.
Even the great Los Angeles Times weighed in on the so-called “unprecedented spike” in accusations of police misconduct here in San Diego, comparing them to their own LAPD Ramparts scandal and scandals involving other large city departments. The Times‘ conclusion?
The cases do not appear to have the elements that often lead to long-lasting controversy at big-city police departments. There are no accusations involving racial or ethnic bias; there is no evidence of a cover-up among police officials; the allegations do not seem to point to one particular station house or division.
The Times reporter contacted former San Diego DA Paul Pfingst, who confirmed the tone of the article – that the current mess did not amount to a full-fledged scandal. Pfingst said:
The L.A. brutality [cases], New Orleans theft and excessive force [cases], and NYPD corruption scandals are of a very different character and seriousness than the San Diego cases.
The Times quoted Pfingst that he sees this current crop of cop capers as “individual, unrelated acts as opposed to a pattern of similar behavior engaged in and explicitly or tacitly approved by colleagues.“
For the complete LA Times story, click here.
Well, you might say, this is all very comforting. We don’t really have a police scandal on our hands after all if you compare our mess with recent scandals of other large cities.
But what about San Diego itself? Has this city had any other large scandals within or because of the police department? Have there been any other instances or patterns of corruption over the decades? And if so, how does this current pattern of police misconduct compare with these other instances of yesteryear?
Now, as we attempt to address these questions, we’re not trying to embarrass anyone, we’re not trying to denigrate the police department, individual police officers or departments. We’re not debating that we need police departments. We’re just trying – in the vernacular of our time – to tell it like it is, and laying out important history that makes up our city. And it’s not news that our police department – or any police department for that matter – can stand to undergo reform and be humanized. But right now, in this city’s history, the police department, like all city departments, have been forced to undergo budget cut-backs. The reality of the moment is the cut-backs today were the reforms of yesterday. Police officers, like all public workers, are under attack across the nation by politicians and movements that want to fill the gaps of municipal budgets by privatization and sacrifices by these public workers.
Any review – no matter how brief – into the history of police corruption in this town – must be grounded with the realization that whatever is going on with the police department reflects and represents whatever is going on within city government and with the elites who run the town. The context of any era, and of any instance or pattern of police corruption here within the boundaries of our paradise by the sea is tied to and reflects the state of corruption within the City of San Diego at large.
And if there’s anybody who has taken more than a glance at San Diego’s history of corruption, it’s been Mike Davis, author, sociologist, architectural and social critic extraordinaire – and local. In his mesmerizing piece about the sordid history of our fair city, “The Next Little Dollar” – part of a 2003 anthology on San Diego with Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller called “Under the Perfect Sun – The San Diego Tourists Never See” – Davis illuminates this history of corruption.
Along with his narrative on the outrageous behavior and “misconduct” of our business and civic leaders over the decades, Davis does touch on the corruption of the police department itself. In his introduction, he instructs:
“Wall Street aside, San Diego is arguably the nation’s capital of white collar crime, specializing in Ponzi schemes …. It is also the seat of chronic municipal corruption …. Two of its modern mayors have been hauled off in handcuffs, while another escaped a grand jury indictment by the skin of her teeth. A score more of council members, police chiefs, planning directors, judges, and commissioners over the last thirty years have been charged with perjury, bribe taking, or the illegal use of funds – a record unequaled by any other large city on the West Coast.” [Davis – pg. 19.] (My emphasis.)
(This was even written before the resignation of Mayor Murphy.)
Perusing Davis and Miller, coupled with common knowledge of these last 40 years or so, we can compile a short history – a very short history – of San Diego police corruption and scandal – in order to compare it with today’s “unprecedented spike”.
In order to do this, we are skipping (for today) the use of the local police force as a repressive political instrument, as for example, was illustrated by the thuggery employed by San Diego police in 1911 against the Wobblies and others during San Diego’s Free Speech Fight. Nor will we discuss the use of the notorious Red Squad and police during the thirties against union activists and during the seventies against anti-Vietnam War activists.
There was the Memorial Day “massacre” of 1933 in downtown San Diego, for example, where police charged into a marching crowd of labor advocates at New Town Park with billy clubs flying. Thirty marchers – and 10 cops – were injured. [Miller, pg. 205.]
And of course, nearly forty years later there was the police attack against peaceful OBcians and other anti-war activists at Collier Park in late March of 1971. Fifty people were arrested and many injured.
In our review, we are deliberating glossing over the use of the SDPD to suppress the cultural and political expressions of minority communities – let’s just say -over the last 50 years. We won’t go into, for instance, how the police were used to enforce the dominant Jim Crow attitudes. Or the fact that during the late 1960’s the San Diego chapter of the Black Panthers was forced to go “underground” because of the intense pressure, intimidation, and harassment they received at the hands of our brown-suited gendarmes. And the story of how the police were repressively used in the Mexican-American / Chicano communities could fill volumes just on its own during that same period.
No, let’s just focus on corruption per se and on the scandals from corruption.
The Influence of Gambling and Vice
For starters, for at least the last hundred years, San Diego’s proximity to Tijuana has placed it to be a jumping off point for gringos going south for gambling, alcohol, and other earthy pleasures. Most of the bordellos and casinos were owned by American citizens sitting in San Diego. The relationship that developed between the Tijuana kings of vice and businesses across the border was a deeply corrupting one. During the thirties, a former local newspaper, the San Diego Herald, reported that San Diego businessmen and boosters were upset and were complaining about how the vice and gambling interests – dominated by the owners of the Tijuana casinos – were taking over the city. [Davis, pg. 57.]
A June 10, 1935, Time magazine article described a friendly meeting between then San Diego Mayor Percy Benbough – himself a former police chief – with a local business association made up of bookmakers, peep show operators, and salon owners. Mayor Benbough, using cloaked words, urged the assembled low-end merchants to not give bribes to Chief Sears, the head of the police department – who apparently was well-known for his income on the side. Four years later, Benbough fired Sears and the City Manager in a move to clean house, or at least make it look that way.
But by time World War Two engulfed the city, things went back to normal, and the police “resumed their traditional grafting from bookmakers and pimps.” [Davis.]
C. Arnholt Smith, the Alessios, and the Police
Forward to the mid-sixties. Davis continues:
State and federal investigations, initiated in 1966-67, revealed evidence that the San Diego police department’s intelligence unit as well as its vice and pawnshop were little more than subsidiaries of the Alessio gambling network and their alleged mob allies. Russel Alessio, the brother who oversaw the books, was, according to [journalist] Harold Keen, a “sacred cow to local law enforcement” as well as to District Attorney Keller. When the corruption of the vice squad was revealed in 1962, it was quickly covered up and the paperwork destroyed. Indeed, the San Diego police department’s reputation was so notorious that other agencies refused to share sensitive information with it and eventually ousted it from the national Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit. [Davis, pg. 94.]
During later investigations into police corruption in 1968, a vice sergeant by the name of Russ Ormbsy admitted that he routinely accepted bribes back prior to 1961 while he worked for his commander, Wesley Sharp, before Sharp became police chief. [Davis footnote 182.]
Now, the Alessios were not just a well-connected outlaw local cartel – they were friends, allies, and business associates of C. Arnholt Smith, “Mr. San Diego” of 1960. Smith was a kingpin, banker, an all around oligarch with his fingers in just about everything making tourist dollars. As one of the grand masters of our local ruling elite, he had set up the Alessio brothers to run the Caliente race track in Tijuana, and they came to own a number of San Diego landmarks, such as the Hotel del Coronado. In the meantime, Smith was fraudulently and illegally borrowing millions from his own bank. The Alessios and Smith were eventually brought down – but not before their collapse was temporarily halted by intervention from the Nixon White House.
When DA Keller retired, he did so “amid accusations that he had covered for the police while they, in turn, covered for Smith and the Alessios.” [Davis, pg. 95] When Police Chief Sharp retired in early 1968, he was given a brand new luxurious Impala by San Diego Yellow Cab, one of Smith’s subsidiaries. This led to an investigation that uncovered a bribery scandal behind a City Council vote that granted Yellow Cab a 22% fare increase, and led to the indictment for conspiracy and bribery of Mayor Frank Curran and all but one member of the City Council.
Go to Part 2.