The San Diego Police Department was at the forefront of many new developments in policing between 1970 and 2000. In the 1970s, the department was the site of three early Police Foundation studies—San Diego Field Interrogation (1975), San Diego Community Profile (1975), and Patrol Staffing in San Diego: One- or Two-Officer Units (1977). In the late 1980s, the department was one of five cities selected to implement field experiments in problem-oriented policing (POP).

In the 1990s, the department was selected to host a Regional Community Policing Institute and to serve as a National Community Oriented Policing Demonstration Center. Also in the 1990s, the department began hosting the annual International Problem-Oriented Policing Conference and won several national awards for community policing and problem-oriented policing. In 2001, the department won an “Excellence in Equality” award for its integration of gays and lesbians throughout the agency. Most recently, the department was one of the first in the country to voluntarily agree to collect vehicle stop data in response to the racial profiling issue and has been widely recognized for engaging community groups in the early stages of that process.

San Diego’s early adoption of community-oriented and problem-oriented strategies is interesting because California police departments did not generally embrace these developments before the 1990s. One exception, Santa Ana, was an early proponent of community policing, owing to the leadership of Chief Ray Davis, but otherwise California departments seemed to put more emphasis on the professional model and the legalistic style of policing, as epitomized by Los Angeles and Oakland. In the middle 1980s, the new strategy of community policing tended to be more associated with Houston, Newark, and Madison, while problem-oriented policing was identified with Newport News and Baltimore County. This early period of community policing and problem-oriented policing development represented an important shift in the epicenter of policing innovation from the West Coast to the Midwest and East Coast.

San Diego shares one important characteristic with many other California and Southwest police departments—low police staffing in relation to population. In 2004, for example, large cities in the West averaged 1.9 sworn officers per thousand population compared to 4.3 officers in the Northeast. San Diego has even fewer officers than the average for the West—1.6 officers per thousand. These low levels of police staffing have generally led California and other western departments to emphasize efficiency, out of necessity. Whereas Los Angeles and some other agencies developed a ”lean and mean” culture as their adaptation to insufficient police personnel starting in the 1980s, San Diego looked to its community for volunteer assistance and to analytical methods for policing smarter, such as problem-oriented policing.

Much of the credit for San Diego’s community-oriented path goes to a succession of police chiefs, particularly William Kolender (1976-1988), Robert Burgreen (1988-1993), and Jerry Sanders (19931999). Chief Kolender (who has subsequently served as sheriff of San Diego County since 1995) emphasized diversity and equal opportunity in the department and oversaw the initial implementation of problem-oriented policing in the department. Chief Burgreen instituted town hall meetings, initiated neighborhood policing, and started the annual POP conference in San Diego in conjunction with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Chief Sanders (who was elected mayor of San Diego in 2005) implemented several internal organizational measures to put greater emphasis on problem-oriented policing, expanded problem-oriented policing department-wide, continued and expanded the POP conferences, promoted the widespread use of volunteers, and placed San Diego in the vanguard of departments working with the new Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office) in the U.S. Department of Justice during the 1990s.

In addition, beginning in 1988, PERF was instrumental in providing the police department with technical assistance to implement and enhance problem-oriented policing. PERF placed Nancy McPherson in the department to help with its POP demonstration project. She remained with the department after the grant expired, assisting with problem-oriented policing efforts, and later went on to serve in assistant chief-level positions in the Seattle and Portland police departments.

Community Profiling

This project, begun in 1973 with research assistance from the Police Foundation, required patrol officers to systematically profile their beats by gathering information about resident demographics, businesses, social service agencies, crime, and calls for service. The premise was that officers should become more knowledgeable about their beats and the people living in them in order to do a better job of policing, identifying problems, and tailoring solutions. Results indicated that officer attitudes became more community-oriented— officers came to believe that they should be more knowledgeable about their beats and residents, that stronger ties to community members were more important than they had thought, and that random patrol was less effective than previously believed.

This very early community profiling initiative presaged national developments in U.S. policing over the next two to three decades. For San Diego it laid the foundation for further expansion into community policing and problem-oriented policing.

Problem-Oriented Policing

For a decade or longer, San Diego was widely recognized as a leader in problem-oriented policing, particularly among large cities. POP training was started in the department in the late 1980s. The International Problem-Oriented Policing Conference was held annually in San Diego, cosponsored by the police department, from 1990 to 2003. Problem solving was formally incorporated into field training in 1996, as one of the anchors on recruits’ daily performance evaluation forms. The department was one of the first in the country, in 1998, to integrate problem solving throughout its recruit-training academy. In the department’s triannual performance review program for sworn officers, problem solving was one of fourteen specific criteria that were scored.

The department developed its own database, POP-Track, for storing and retrieving information on POP projects. San Diego police officers have delivered POP training around the country, and former police department employees have been hired by other agencies to help them implement POP. Former San Diego police commanders have been hired as police chiefs in other major cities, including Norm Stamper in Seattle and John Welter in Anaheim, in large measure due to their expertise in POP and community policing.

Prior to 1993, much of the problem-solving activity in the department was accomplished by Neighborhood Policing Teams (NPTs), which had been established as part of community policing implementation. Subsequently, the department’s official policy was that all officers (and all other employees) should incorporate problem solving into their regular duties, leading to the elimination of the NPTs and department-wide implementation of POP. A number of organizational systems were implemented to support both POP and community policing, including (1) a crime analysis unit, based at headquarters, that was nationally recognized for its sophistication; (2) a Neighborhood Policing Support Team (NPST) that helped mentor officers and squads in the field (this team’s mission was broadened in 2001 to include providing a range of administrative and field assistance related to problem solving, community policing, and crime prevention); (3) a Problem Analysis Advisory Committee (PAAC) that met monthly to help officers analyze problems and brainstorm responses (the committee and its meetings were renamed Problem Solving Meetings in February 2000); (4) a computerized record keeping system for problem-oriented policing projects (POP-Track); and (5) a departmental strategic plan that identified POP as a critical component for achieving department goals.

Research on POP in San Diego has demonstrated the difficulty of changing the way the average officer does his or her work in a big police department. Capowich and Roehl found in 1989 that the role played by citizens was limited and that problem analysis tended to be superficial. Cordner and Biebel found in 2000-2001 that San Diego’s POP projects tended to focus on small-scale problems (one address, one intersection, one park, and so forth) and to employ relatively weak analysis and assessment methods. On the positive side, however, these studies found that officers accepted the importance of taking a problem-oriented approach; that most officers could point to recent POP projects in which they had been involved; and that officers typically employed a combination oftraditional and nontraditional responses in their problem-solving efforts. While routine police activity in San Diego did not consistently measure up to award-winning POP standards, it was more systematic, analytical, and substantive than the incident-oriented style of policing practiced in most police agencies.

As of 2005, the department’s commitment to POP seemed to have waned. Chief David Bejarano (1999-2003) emphasized community policing but relaxed specific expectations regarding problem-oriented policing. Chief William Lansdowne (2003-), who came to San Diego from the San Jose Police Department, has experienced significant financial challenges during his administration and seems to have emphasized more traditional approaches with less support for department-wide problem-oriented policing than was evident in the 1990s.


An important aspect of San Diego’s approach to community policing has been widespread use of volunteers. The police department initiated its volunteer program in 1986 when Crisis Intervention Teams were developed to assist victims and witnesses and relieve patrol officers of sometimes time-consuming duties. This program struggled initially, but by 1989, volunteers were responding to an average of twenty calls per month. By 1995, the workload handled by volunteers had grown to about fifty calls per month.

The department broadened its volunteer program in 1989 following a careful study and the establishment of policies, procedures, volunteer positions, selection requirements, and minimum expectations. Over the course of several years, the number of active volunteers grew to about a thousand. Presently, volunteers serve in one of four general capacities: (1) Volunteers in Policing (VIP), (2) Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol (RSVP), (3) crisis intervention, and (4) reserves. These volunteers are expected to donate a minimum of twenty to twenty-four hours per month. VIP assignments are in area stations, storefronts, the telephone reporting unit, and other department units. RSVP volunteers assist area stations with various crime prevention programs. Crisis intervention volunteers are on call to respond to critical incidents and assist victims and witnesses. Reserves perform police duties alongside full-time officers.

The San Diego Model

Over and above specific programs and initiatives, the San Diego model is often identified as a big city alternative to the archetypal LAPD and NYPD models. The LAPD model of the 1980s emphasized enforcement, specialization, and toughness. The NYPD model, beginning in 1994 with COMPSTAT, emphasized broken-windows theory, quality of life enforcement, and zero tolerance. In contrast to these approaches, the San Diego model emphasized community policing and problem-oriented policing.

Which approach worked most effectively? Evaluations on such a grand scale are difficult at best, but San Diego managed to avoid the police-community relations tensions and scandals of its Southern California neighbor the LAPD in the 1980s and 1990s. Less well known is that San Diego experienced almost exactly the same crime rate decreases as the ”New York miracle” of the 1990s and early 2000s, with about a third the number of police officers per population. Arguably, New York achieved its noisy miracle with a heavy-handed enforcement approach and a very expensive level of police staffing, while San Diego quietly enjoyed the same level of success by analyzing repeat crime and traffic problems, applying both traditional and nontraditional responses, and engaging those affected by crime problems in their solution.

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