By KENDRA SITTON | La Mesa Courier
In a surprise move, La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez announced his retirement on the same day as a town hall where he was a prominent speaker.
In a press release sent out during the live event, the police department announced his retirement will be effective Aug. 27 after five years as the top cop in La Mesa. The release said Vasquez had previously planned on retiring but he stayed longer than expected to guide the city through the coronavirus crisis.
Before his retirement, he weathered another crisis as well: Peaceful protests of aggressive policing that devolved into riots on May 30.
At the Aug. 13 town hall where he faced many tough questions from the public, Vasquez provided an update on those events. He said the investigation into the serious injury of Leslie Furcron at the protests had been forwarded to District Attorney Summer Stephan. Meanwhile, he announced that Matt Dages, the officer behind the Amaurie Johnson arrest, was no longer with the department.
He also explained more about why the charge of resisting arrest against Johnson was dropped. Vasquez said after he viewed the body cam footage of the incident himself he did not feel it was appropriate to send the arrest to Stephan for criminal prosecution.
Vasquez said the question that hit him the most was the very first: how is the La Mesa Police Department going to regain the trust of the community?
“I must tell you, it is an every second effort. We just have to keep working hard to maintain and regain that trust of the citizens,” Vasquez said.
The department will have to do that without Vasquez soon though. In the last two years, he added new de-escelation trainings for officers and updated the use of force guidelines.
The town hall meeting was plagued with technical difficulties, highlighting the disconnect the virtual format created for the community. At one point, Council member Christine Alessio streamed the meeting on her phone to Facebook Live because the city’s page was not simulcasting correctly. Speakers were often muted and long pauses occurred between each person.
Still, the public did receive more information than at previous meetings while investigations were ongoing. A lawyer specializing in employment advice to public agencies explained the process of police investigations and the disciplinary process, which can take up to a year. Unlike in the private sector, public employees are not at will and have significant workplace protections surrounding termination.
During public comment, Mayor Mark Araposthasis revealed since the protests exploded the city attorney had been educating the city council on their limited legal options while the public demands immediate action.
“What we’re finding is we have different powers because of unions and California’s due process,” he said. “It’s frustrating because trying to explain that to the public — it’s very arduous.”
It was also announced that the firm Hillard Heintz will be conducting the promised independent review of the city’s response on May 30.
While many asked tough questions of Vasquez during the public comment, those who weighed in on the issues revealed a divided public. Forty-year resident Trenton Smith said the protesters were bused in and the grandmother (Furcron) who was seriously injured should not have been participating with the rioters.
“I support vigilante justice,” a man said, praising Alessio and other people’s involvement in the La Mesa Civil Defense Group as well as the group Defend East County which has brought in counter-protesters to recent Black Lives Matter events in La Mesa. A recent San Diego Union-Tribune report found the 20,000 strong group is filled with racism and QAnon conspiracy theories.
City Council candidate Jack Shu, who recently stepped down from the task force charged with designing a citizen oversight board of LMPD, said, “We may be lucky that Leslie Furcron did not die… We really do need an independent police oversight board.”
The Citizen Oversight Task Force will present their findings at the September City Council meeting.
— Contributing editor Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.