Comparing the Current Crop of Cop Capers to San Diego Police Scandals of the Past -Part 2

by on May 20, 2011 · 2 comments

in History, San Diego

This is the second in a series, and here’s Part 1.

The Wilson Era Begins With Police Reform

Mayor Pete Wilson.

A few years later, during the early seventies, a new “centrist” Republican mayor – Pete Wilson, still wearing the mantle of an advocate for “controlled growth” -, made efforts to reform the police department. But he was up against old Chief Ray Hoobler, a veteran of the old school of hard knocks – literally. Hoobler, while not media or PR savvy, was notorious for using his brown-suits to clamp down on minorities, gays, Navy sailors, young people in general, and the growing population of hippies.

In 1975, Chief Hoobler was forced to retire because he was caught lying to the City Council. This worked for Pete Wilson as it then allowed him to appoint a community-policing “reformer” as chief – Bill Kolender.

Kolender, Jewish, college-educated, was a man of the 20th century. He knew how to present himself to the media, knew how to relate to the minority communities, and to those who wanted to push the city away from its boorish past. He remolded his department by embarking on “an ambitious program of professionalism and decentralization ….” .  He “offered reassurances to traumatized liberals and alienated academics that the police – for so long, mere bagmen and goons for Smith-Alessio – were now civilized guardians.”[Mike Davis, “The Next Little Dollar“, pg. 108.]

Commander Ray Hoobler, addressing a gathering of young people in Ocean Beach, during the "Labor Day Riot" of 1968.

Meanwhile, having been forced out as chief, Hoobler went to work as head of security for Atlas Hotels. In an unpublished 1976  study of the political-economics of prostitution in San Diego by a team of San Diego State University graduate students, working on their masters thesis,  prostitutes / sex workers and police officials were interviewed. This team of grad students included our occasional blogger, Jon Christensen.

Capt. LaMonte, the head of the Vice Squad was interviewed by the team at that time and confirmed what many sex workers had told the researchers – that Atlas Hotels was the center piece of upscale prostitution in San Diego.

Security’s job – which Hoobler oversaw, was, per the sex workers, to screen new applicants – as not every one was approved for working the hotel, and to keep things quiet should a customer get out of hand.

Capt LaMonte left the researchers with this quote: “All it takes for corruption to proliferate is for the cops, courts and prosecution to be bought off.”

Question: “In your opinion is corrupt proliferating in San Diego?”

Answer: (Chuckle) “It certainly is.”

The disturbing irony of why the study was never published can be traced to threats and intimidation against the study’s subjects, the women who talked.  One was hospitalized after being beaten up, and another had her car window shot out.  Everyone was convinced that it was because they had “talked.” Plus one of the grad students on the team was pulled into her boss’ corporate utility office where she worked – a place totally unrelated to the study –  and ordered to stop the research – even though she had never disclosed what she was doing  in the study to her boss.  Finally, the nail in the coffin came from the team’s supervising professor, who declared the project over, as she said, one shouldn’t have to risk their life doing theirs master thesis.

So, while Hoobler was overseeing the high-end trade, his replacement, Bill Kolender,  spear headed an attack on massage parlors and El Cajon Boulevard street walkers. But he never went after the Mission Valley hotels – where everyone agreed was the center of activity.

Bill Kolender, Police Chief, and County Sheriff.

Yet, all this would pass. Kolender left the Chief’s office under a cloud, as he had been accused of  dismissing thousands of parking tickets given to influential “friends” of the Police Department.  He later would undergo rehabilitation and become the elected County Sheriff, remaining in office until just very recently.

Mayor Wilson, meanwhile, with eyes for higher office, had metastasized into a right-wing racist. He made the transformation from reformer to law and order hard nose in order to establish the credentials he would need for his entry into the conservative world of California Republican Party politics.  Wilson waged his infamous “war on crime” by using the police department – unleashing it upon minority neighborhoods. This was not a scandal, but it was scandalous the way Wilson pressured the police to carry out his ideological priorities for his own political gain.

The Unsolved Serial Killings of Prostitutes

As we continue to immerse ourselves in the modern era, other scandals involving San Diego police materialized.  And they’re not pretty.

One big scandal  stemmed from a string of murders of prostitutes and other young women by a serial killer or killers that began in 1985.  Over a five year period, there had been 43 murders and not one suspect had been found. The first and most famous murder was of Donna Gentile, a 22-year-old prostitute, who had been associated with cops on the Vice Squad, thought to have been a police informer, and who had been dating an officer.  During an investigation of vice, she testified against officers.  She was later found dead with her mouth stuffed full of gravel and rocks.

A 1987 Grand Jury report, in heavily criticizing the police in their later investigation into a ring of high-priced call girls, raised “serious questions about police misconduct, concluding among other things that some San Diego officers had hired prostitutes,” so reported the New York Times.

The murders of the mainly young women continued into the early nineties, and they were not getting the attention they obviously deserved by police. At one point there were about fifty women who had been murdered, and officialdom was ignoring them.  It was scandalous. It was one of the largest strings of serial killings in the United States, and a few cops were even accused of committing some of the killings.

Incidentally, Bonnie Dumanis, current County District Attorney and mayoral candidate for San Diego mayor, was a Deputy DA at the time of the murders and assigned to the Metropolitan Homicide Task Force charged with solving them.

The years passed and eventually the police made a couple of arrests.  Dumanis then claimed that the cases were solved, and the whole affair became part of the City’s history.

Then there was the 1987 “Rolodex Madam” scandal involving the arrest by police of Karen Wilkening.  Despite a police investigation and research by the San Diego Union,  somehow her list of high-class San Diego clientele never made it to the light of day.  It is incredulous to think that there was no evidence of ties to high-powered or influential clients, but the lack of any publicity of who they were points to some kind of pressure on the police to not divulge the sordid details.

Shootings of Civilians by Police

By time the early to mid-nineties rolled around, another scandal had engulfed the department. This time it involved the fatal shootings by police of local citizens who were unarmed – or lightly “armed”. In one year, about 8 or 9 people had been gunned down, way above average for the department. One man had a garden trowel, another had a tomato stake, one had a screw driver, local OBcian Tony Tummania had grabbed a cop’s nun-chucks after being assaulted by two cops and was shot dead in a restaurant parking lot on West Point Loma, one guy was totally unarmed.  All of them fatally killed. The San Diego community screamed for reforms, and this ushered in the use of non-lethal weapons and additional training for police officers.

These killings followed a general trend, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in 2003:

In the 12 years from 1990 through 2001, San Diego police shot 151 people. They killed 81 – more per capita than officers in 14 of the state’s 20 largest police agencies, more than those in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune analysis.

A decade later, there was another scandal involving fatal shootings by police – although this time homeless men with mental problems were being targeted and gunned down. Within a period of three years, 4 homeless men – most under severe mental distress or even illness – died at the hands of police. This included several in the Ocean Beach area. The most famous case was the shooting death of Daniel “Walking Man” Woodyard in February 2003 – in front of hundreds of OBcians.

Neither of these shooting scandals – the early nineties shootings or the homeless shootings this century – resulted in any police officer being fired or even reprimanded.

The Fall of Mayors

As we stated in Part 1, whatever is going on in San Diego’s police department, reflects and represents whatever is going on within City Hall and the corporate high-rises that dot downtown.

No brief review of San Diego corruption would be complete without bringing up the whole Roger Hedgecock story. Hedgecock, a young, “environmentalist” Republican and former rock concert promoter, had captured a seat on the County Board of Supervisors. Then in the the early eighties he – and his partners, J. Dominelli, Nancy Hoover, and Tom Shepard, landed in the mayor’s office.  But the ponzi scheme that had lifted him out of obscurity into the highest offices of the region was exposed, and the entire deck of cards folded by 1985.

The collapse of Mayor Hedgecock highlights the fact, that while looking at police corruption, one cannot ignore that in today’s light of day we find that five of the last 8 San Diego mayors left office under negative conditions – either after being indicted, under the cloud of suspicion, or found responsible for shady dealings that later were exposed. From Mayor Dail to Mayor Murphy, this pattern includes Dail, Curren, Hedgecock, Golding and then ol’ Murph himself.

When the mayor is found to be a crook, the effect on the average San Diego citizen, working stiff, and police officer deserves attention that has never been examined.  And when there are dirty dealings in the highest corporate and banking offices, the slime does run downhill and engulfs everyone. This effect cannot be underrated.

The Crimes and Misdemeanors of Ten Cops – Half Against Women

Topping off our brief purview of the major scandals of San Diego’s police department, we turn to the inevitable comparison with today’s crop of cop capers.

Of the ten – five, or half – had to do with assaults, rapes, or the harassment of women.  One officer is accused of sexually assaulting five women while on duty and is facing 18 felonies. Another cop is accused of raping a college student, another of domestic violence against his wife, the most recent incident involves allegations of kidnapping and rape of a prostitute, and one officer is on administrative leave for stalking and harassing a fellow woman officer.

The victimization of women by men in police uniform has certainly landed on center stage.  And it has broadly exposed the deep undercurrent of male chauvinism that permeates law enforcement. In an institution that has always enhanced, encouraged, and promoted aggression, machismo, control, and physical prowess, we cannot wonder why.

The popular conception that cops have always harassed women they stop, but now they’re getting caught, does raise the question why now – why now are cops getting busted – especially while under the eyes of a District Attorney who has never reprimanded a law enforcement officer for shooting civilians?

Are women victims stepping forward more these days? Has there been a cultural change where the victims of rape and sexual assault no longer feel as penalized as they have been in the past?  Are there enough women now in law enforcement on all levels who no longer will tolerate the male chauvinism of the past?

Besides these questions, we also ask – Does this current crop represent any trend or pattern within the department?

If it appears to be so, the ready answers are the economic stress, the low morale, the far-reaching territory that a small force has to cover (Norm Stamper’s “under-policing”), the low pay, the lack of internal controls that ferreted out misconduct and criminal behavior before it exploded in the department’s face, the sense that there has always been “bad cops”.

Those who have had daily dealings with individual police officers know there are a lot of fine, honest people trying to do their best to protect and serve the citizenry.  As long as citizens continue to hurt other citizens, we will need police.  The hope is, of course, that instead of following the dictates of serving the elite rulers of the era, police will actually serve the communities they patrol.  This is always the goal.

Does a Corrupt City Mean a Corrupt Police Department?

We’ve seen in this review how there have been periods in San Diego’s history where either the entire department from the chief on down was corrupt (Chief Sears, Chief Sharpe), or there were entire squads or divisions on the take, such as the Vice Squad in the 1950s and sixties.  And we’ve seen other scandalous conduct, such as the official avoidance for years by police of prioritizing the murders of dozens of women because many of them were thought to be prostitutes – less than human – and undeserving of the attention their cases needed.

Plus, we’ve touched on at least two periods in recent history, where police were aptly described as “gun-happy” in gunning down unarmed civilians, and then a series of fatal shootings of mentally-distressed homeless men.

The definitions of “scandal” and “corruption” are broad enough to encompass all of these waves of police “misconduct.” There can be corruption per se – as when the police chief himself is collecting bribes from shady businessmen, or when the department is covering for the slick and slimy dealings of some of the ruling elite (Smith and the Alessios). Or there can be scandalous or corrupt policies or corrupt practices, such as the use of police to suppress minorities, unions, dissent in general, or the policy of ignoring one of the largest serial killings in American history, or in the fatal shootings of unarmed civilians and homeless.

Taken each individually, the latest crimes and misconduct of the ten cops do not rise to the level of these large scandals of the past.

This may be comforting. Yet, San Diego still has to deal with the myth of a usually-untarnished police department.

In a recent article, the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Sgt. Jeff Jordon, a board member of the city’s Police Officers Association, saying that the department has been historically well-mannered for the most part, and that this latest spate of misconduct has risen to a level unseen.

The LA Times even quoted Tony Young, City Council president and the only Black member of the Council as saying: “We have one of the finest police departments, if not the finest, in the country,” while adding that the routine days of racial tension between his district and the police are over.

Councilmember Marti Emerald chairs the council committee that oversees the Police Department. She has hinted that she’ll call a hearing to get to the bottom of what is contributing to all this police misconduct.

“We need to have an honest talk about what’s happening over there,” she said.

In order to have an “honest talk” and get to the bottom of any scandal or series of criminal misconduct by uniformed officers, we must understand the history of the subject, we must grok what has come before all of this. What has the record been in ol’ San Diego and its police department?  Unless this history is at least reviewed and even addressed and understood, we as a city and citizenry will never find out “what’s happening over there.”

And at the very least, this series has been a start.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

annagrace May 20, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Frank, this was a troubling journey down memory lane. I wasn’t here in the 60’s, so I appreciate you providing historical context and talking about the power brokers of the time.
I moved into City Heights during the time period when those 43 women were murdered. They were a varied group racially and included transient women as well prostitutes. One of these women was found not far from my house. It was at that time that I heard the term NHI- no humans involved, a shorthand way for the police to refer to these women. There was a tremendous public push back against this blatant disregard for these womens’ lives.
Minorities, women, the homeless, and people with mental problems are the recurring victims of police abuse. Marginalized segments of our society remain easy targets because their status too often permits the abuse of power with impunity- the NHI attitude. That is a serious problem which we need to face.


Wireless Mike May 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm

This is a good refresher for oldtimers and a good education for newcomers. The history of San Diego government is one scandal after another after another. There are many lingering questions about scandals in the past where justice was not served. To quote the title of Roger Hedgecock’s book, “America’s Finest City-If We Say It Enough, We’ll Believe It”.


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