By JEFF CLEMETSON
As of July 1, the City of La Mesa has a new Chief of Police. After conducting a nationwide search to replace retired Police Chief Walt Vasquez, the city ultimately promoted LMPD Capt. Ray Sweeney to lead the department.
Despite calls from some residents to hire a chief from outside the department following two well-publicized incidents involving LMPD officers’ use of force on Black residents during stops for minor infractions, Chief Sweeney said his experience within the department is a positive and not a detriment in addressing needed changes to policing in La Mesa.
“I have 20-plus years here. I’ve seen the culture change over the years. I’ve experienced the need for change. I’ve lived through it,” he said. “We already have a roadmap of where we need to go — I don’t think, I know we do. And so being able to step in and look at this from an unbiased view, to me, is not an issue because, yes I know the people here, I’ve grown up in this agency. But it’s not about us. It’s not about me. It’s about where this department needs to go with the community into the future.”
Sweeney added that, in his experience, a new chief from outside the department would take around a year to be familiar with the culture at the department before they could address changes.
At a time when LMPD is undergoing changes mandated by a new Community Police Oversight Board (CPOB) and new state and federal policing practices, the new chief said he doesn’t worry about his former colleagues in the department suddenly resenting him as he implements changes to the department now that he is their boss.
“I’ve always been opinionated and people know me coming into this,” he said. “The employees that work here know that I will change things if we need to change things to move forward — because we have to. So there’s really no hesitation about me seeing a new picture — the picture has been painted.”
Chief Sweeney attributes his ability to be self-critical of his police department to reading lots of books and cited Adam Grant’s “Think Again,” which he said “really makes you take that deep look.”
“Are we doing things right? Why are we doing it this way? Does it make sense? Can we change and do it a better way? So to be able to take a critical look, not only at me as a leader, but this agency as a department and what we’re bringing to the community, is critical,” he added.
Those changes and a better way to police La Mesa are built into Chief Sweeney’s Six-Step Action Plan, which focuses on a variety of new policies, practices and goals to bolster community trust and involvement with LMPD.
The first step of the plan is to work in partnership with the newly-formed CPOB, an 11-member, all-volunteer group of residents who will review police practices, policies and in a limited capacity address complaints against the department.
“There’s nothing wrong with having an extra set of eyes on what we do. I’ve always been a big believer of that. If you can come in and tell me, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about doing it this way?’ That’s a great conversation to have, in my opinion,” Sweeney said, adding: “The CPOB is not there to hurt [the department]. They’re there to help.”
The second step of the plan is a “trust campaign” that will include a series of community conversations and other outreach efforts.
“That’a the piece we’ve been missing for a while — not only due to COVID, but just a lot of things that have been going on in the city of La Mesa,” Sweeney said
The conversations events could begin as soon as August, once locations are secured in each of the city’s four geographical patrol beats. The events are intended to be in-person conversations where residents and business owners can ask questions.
“I want to listen to the community,” Sweeney said. “What are they seeing from the police department? What are their needs? What can we do? And then on the other piece of the conversation, I’ll show them what we’re doing and give them the roadmap moving forward, which is the six-step action plan and some of the things we’ve done since the Hillard-Hines report.”
The third step of the plan is a goal to “increase, improve and monitor” fair and unbiased policing and cultural awareness in the department. Reaching the goal will take a mix of policy and training, Sweeney said. The training will also include an emphasis on de-escalation.
“It’s in our use of force policy: It’s a ‘shall,’ not a ‘should,’” Sweeney emphasized. “So we want that, because it’s a safer outcome no matter how you look at it. If we can use de-escalation — and de-escalation is a two-way street — but if we can be successful in using de-escalation and not get an officer injured or anyone else injured, that’s a win for everyone.”
Another part of de-escalation is the movement to have police respond to less issues, which Sweeney said “is already here” and pointed to La Mesa’s HOME program’s success in tackling homelessness.
“They’re able to house people because they can build that rapport. Sometimes you walk up with a badge and people don’t want to talk to you and we have to understand that,” he said.
Sweeney also pointed out that the county’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team has been around for over 20 years and it “continues to get better,” as well as the county’s new Mobile Crisis Response Team.
“That’s the piece where it’s all civilians. So clinicians would go out to those calls. I can’t wait to see that happen. And I can tell you the officers here that I talk to, same thing,” Sweeney said, adding that police officers often want to help victims and respond to crime but the mental health and homeless call volume is very high. “If we take that off our plate or a portion of that off our plate, it will allow us to be able to do what we’re supposed to be doing.”
To monitor potential biases in the department, LMPD will be instituting changes to how officers report their interactions with the public, as outlined in the state’s Racial Identity and Profiling Act (RIPA). By 2022, La Mesa will be mandated to start collecting racial identity information for all stops, and by July 2023 the city will have to report the information to the Department of Justice. As a smaller department, LMPD is one of the last cities in the region required to adopt the changes.
“So we’re going to implement that,” Sweeney said. “But what I really want, we’ve looked at a program that gets more than the general information.
“I don’t [just] want to take a look at who was stopped, why they were stopped, if they were searched. … That’s all critical information, but I also want a more empirical, in-depth look at what brought us to that stop,” he continued. “Was this a radio call that we got? Was this somebody who matched the description of somebody at a crime that just happened? Was it just a proactive officer going out and making a traffic stop for minor traffic violation? Those are all critical pieces to statistics. I want to make sure the community has a full picture.”
Sweeney’s fourth step to his plan is to make the department more diverse through hiring and retention practices.
“La Mesa is 60-plus thousand [residents] and we’re growing. You see all the apartments going up — it’s a lot and that brings in a diverse group of people. So we have to mirror that,” he said. “I would love to have a large group of police officers that are completely diverse — and we’re doing pretty good. We have a good mix of police officers that are diverse and represent our city, but I want more.”
The fifth step in the plan is to develop a Policy Review Team in the department to assess how the new plan’s policies and programs are working. The review process will be successful because it will involve the CPOB to give its own assessment of how the six-point plan is working.
Also, LMPD is in need of continued policy review because legislation is always changing, Sweeney said, so the department has adopted use of an electronic service that looks for updates to policies at state or federal level to make sure it is always in compliance.
“The transition to move all of our policies and add policies and do all that into this platform is about one year … and that’s why I say these extra set of eyes [of the CPOB] will be extremely helpful,” he added.
The final step is an update to the city’s emergency preparedness — especially crowd control issues. Sweeney described emergency preparedness as “multi-faceted,” but pointed out that the Hillard-Hines report showed LMPD needed a new approach to crowd control.
“We put together a mobile field force since then which is a group of 12 officers with two sergeants that are trained specifically in that,” he said. “We’ve also trained our entire department — once again — on mobile field force tactics, crowd control. I think you see the protests we had post-May 30, you see a big difference.”
Although not officially part of the six-step plan, Sweeney added that the attitudes of police officers also make a big difference:
“I tell my officers, ‘Treat everyone like they’re your best friend, your brother, your sister.’ Treat them all like that because if people can walk away from an experience with police — and not everyone wants police around, but sometimes we’re required to go — if we can make that experience still pleasant where they walk away and say, ‘Yeah, I had to go to jail just because, but the police officer still treated me with respect,’ — that’s what we want.”
Chief Sweeney’s Six-Step Action Plan
- Community Police Oversight Board (CPOB): Maintain an excellent working partnership with the CPOB based on collaboration and cooperation.
- Public trust: Strengthen public trust in all aspects of the LMPD; hosting strategic listening/planning sessions within all demographic regions of our community to evaluate and develop outreach strategies and increase communication.
- Fair and unbiased policing, being culturally aware and de-escalation: Increase, improve and monitor (for effectiveness) training aimed at fair and unbiased policing, being culturally aware and de-escalation.
- Diversity in recruiting and retention: Continue to develop diversity within the La Mesa Police Department, aimed at the recruitment and retention to better serve our diverse and growing community.
- Police review: Develop a LMPD Policy Review Team to work with the community and CPOB.
- Emergency preparedness: Provide mandatory, biannual critical response training based upon current industry standard best practices.
For a more detailed version of the plan, visit www.bit.ly/3r57KTA.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.