By KENDRA SITTON
La Mesa Police Chief Ray Sweeney recently finished his first community conversation tour, but he promised this will not be his last. For four Thursday evenings in a row, July 29 to Aug. 19, the new chief held town halls in different parts of La Mesa where people could learn more about his vision for the department and to give locals a chance to ask him questions.
“This is not the end of our community conversations. We have not done a good job getting into the community [for the past several years,]” Sweeney said. “I wanna hear from you.”
Sweeney said many of these conversations have been paused for COVID-19 and he is thankful to be back because they are critical for healing.
At the third community conversation at Maryland Elementary on Thursday, Aug. 10, Sweeney explained that he wanted to spend most of the two hours answering questions but started with a presentation on his six-step action plan. [Editor’s note: For more information on his action plan, please see La Mesa Courier’s interview with Chief Sweeney in the July edition.] In addition, he shared the types of training the department conducts due to questions at the last session. That training includes crisis response with PERT, de-escelation from District Attorney Summer Stephan, principle policing (an eight-hour course that is all encompassing and includes understanding of implicit bias), mobile field force and the incident command system.
After the presentation concluded, many members of the audience shared their experience with LMPD and asked questions of Sweeney.
City Council candidate Megjan Afshan attended the conversation as well as previous ones.
“I appreciate the adjustments you’ve made to the presentation. It’s important to make sure we continue this conversation,” she said.
Afshan was a legal observer at the protest and riot on May 30. Of course, many audience members made comments about those events and the cases of discrimination that led to them.
“We’re never going to forget our past. That’s what I can promise you,” Sweeney said.
Carol R., an elderly Black woman who has lived in La Mesa for 25 years, said the May 30 riot was a wake-up call for many who thought this was an idyllic small town.
“For many of us it has never been an idyllic place,” Carol said.
She welcomed Sweeney and said she is already feeling better.
“For the last year and a half, I have been afraid, very concerned for my safety…. It’s not fun to live in fear. I’ve been an independent woman for a long time. I’m feeling better now. I’m feeling very hopeful,” she said.
Dawn-Marie Tol, a social worker, asked whether officers would be required to get vaccines and if Sweeney could mandate masks at these events.
“I want to feel safe with the people who are protecting the community,” Tol said.
Sweeney said a vaccine rule would have to come from Stephan’s office. In addition, he said all of his officers present at the meeting were wearing masks. Only a few audience members chose to forego masks completely.
The social worker then explained to Sweeney how it is often frightening for mandated reporters to call police not knowing if their clients will actually be safe with the people meant to protect them.
“Every time I have to make a PERT call for a client who is Black, [I’m] worried about safety when officers arrive as well as the person’s immediate safety,” she said.
Sweeney said that before becoming chief he specialized in mental health and it is still important to him in his new position. He also said many people do not get in to do police work to do mental health work but that is becoming more and more the case. To that end, he is ensuring his officers have training on how to de-escalate situations.
Later, Sweeney discussed how important it is to him that his officers are mentally well through peer support groups and the department’s psychologist. Earlier that day, he learned the son of a family friend he mentored and helped become a police officer in Arizona died by suicide. He hopes to prevent a similar tragedy here.
Tol’s husband Rob asked how Sweeney would create a culture where “the good apples” are willing to report “the bad apples.”
“Culture eats policy and training for lunch and dinner. We have to mirror what we do and let our officers feel comfortable reporting,” Sweeney said.
He also announced that officers will be able to make reports directly to the Community Police Oversight Board (CPOB). The newly formed board is already reviewing the department’s current policies to make recommendations. Sweeney said he views the CPOB as a partner and promised to work with them.
The next people to speak were interested in staffing issues and hiring practices at the department. Sweeney said the department is currently short five officers but there are several people in the police academy who will hopefully graduate soon as long as COVID-19 does not cause any more delays. In the meantime, patrols and emergency calls have become top priority even if it means taking detectives and specialists away from their normal job.
Many officers are also doing a significant amount of overtime although they are limited to not work more than 14 hours a day and sergeants work to make sure it is evenly distributed.
“Police officers cost money. That’s something you can’t change,” Sweeney said.
He said the demographics of the department currently match the demographics of the city exactly and diversity is important to them. Many officers, sergeants and LMPD specialists were present at meeting. A few people commented that they were all white. Sweeney said the officers of color in the department were invited but did not want to come. Sweeney said he respected their feelings about not wanting to be tokenized as well as the hours they are already working.
Another topic that came up was that of marijuana dispensaries. Sweeney tried to assuage fears about them by noting crime has not increased since the legal dispensaries came to the city and said the owners are partners to the city who are quick to report any illegal drug operations they encounter.
Polly Kanavel was one of two people who shared that they enjoyed the Citizen’s Police Academy and recommended other people attend the program to learn more about the department. Sweeney added that anyone can request a ride-along and he is always happy to get coffee with individuals who want to know him more.
Kanavel said she is a part of a walking group but certain streets have become unsafe to walk because drivers run so many red lights. Sweeney was quick to connect her with the person in charge of traffic enforcement. He also answered her other question: what are the most common low-level and high-level crimes?
Sweeney said he did not know the exact statistics but guessed it was likely people breaking into cars. As for high-level crime, he said domestic violence calls were probably the most volatile and emotionally-charged situation his officers had to be in on a regular basis.
Sweeney said he plans to be out in the community so much people will become sick of seeing him. He promised this is only the start of the conversation and there will be more opportunities for the community to meet him later.
— Reach contributing editor Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.