Interviews: Best Practices in Community Policing

Joe Navarro

Joe Navarro, Sergeant with the San Diego Police Department

POV: How did community policing develop in San Diego? What is the city's approach?

Joe Navarro: We called it neighborhood policing. The model we used was to change from the top down, to flatten the structure and allow officers to do what they need to do, to make contacts, and have control over the destiny of their efforts, without bureaucracy. We got away from the multiple levels of bureaucracy, doing away with certain ranks. In the old system you had patrol lieutenants and administrative lieutenants. As a field officer, if you wanted assistance, you had to go through the administrative lieutenant of another division. One of the primary changes in the structure was taking that mid-management position, and putting lieutenants in charge of both field and personnel. We also wanted to get away from traditional beats, allowing more flexibility in terms of off hours, and the structure of deployments. If an officer worked the graveyard shift, but the problem he was working on occurred during the day, he'd have the opportunity to work day and deal with that problem.

The other component of that was holding meetings with every established community in an effort to define community boundaries. Originally you had a structure where beats were within divisions, and a community could be divided by two or three patrol divisions. What you ended up with was not necessarily good for that community. We held forums throughout the city, advertising them throughout the city, and we'd bring people in with a map to confirm or modify our beat structure based on the community's input. We ended up realigning the division lines to cover whole communities.

Another component was to establish community groups, including neighborhood leaders, so that if they had an issue or concern, they could directly contact the lieutenants who were responsible for that area. The lieutenant would coordinate with supervisors to develop tactics or a response to whatever the concerns might be. Some of these were much more successful than others. In a lot of areas, we found homeowners, senior citizen's groups, and volunteers were eager to take part.

At that time we had high levels of violence, gang issues, and drug issues. But, for the most part, we found that the citizenry was not so concerned with crime as with disorder -- graffiti, vehicles parked in the streets and abandoned. For us it was an issue of community involvement, because we wanted people who lived there and had an interest in solving the problems to be involved. We also established relations with other city and government resources out there. These additional tools were outside law enforcement; things like code enforcement, tax abatement, several of those services that we brought under the law enforcement umbrella. We built a collaborative working relationship with resources outside of law enforcement.

POV: Much of that effort began in the 1990s. What changes has the police department made more recently?

Navarro: We still have a neighborhood policing division. Primarily what they do is provide training, and focus their efforts on community. We have a landlord-tenant program, in which we try to educate landlords as to what they can do to avoid future problems, what public resources are available to keep their properties and tenants safe.

There are really two theories of law enforcement: there's the academic end of community policing and there's the working end. Those don't really meet, much of the time. From our point of view, we aren't going to implement everything that the academic end suggests, but we recognize that there may be something else we can do to solve these problems.

Probably the primary innovation at this point is specifically what we are calling the critical response team, or psychiatric evaluation response teams. Those include one officer and one trained clinician. It's not a tactical thing, but the clinician's role is to talk to people who may have a mental illness, and maybe get them into treatment. From a working end, as an officer in the past, you might have taken somebody to the mental health ward, but not been able to get them effective help. Right now there's a move to not necessarily eliminate the clinician, but to provide officers with additional training and additional equipment.

POV: "Every Mother's Son" focuses on three mothers whose sons were killed by police in New York City, who then seek ways to improve the way policing works in the city. What role can citizens play in changing police departments?

Navarro: That's a hot topic at the moment. What we've learned is that community members, and the families of people who are shot by police officers are saying, "Maybe something else could be done." We've started a program that's modeled somewhat after the Memphis police department, but we've also implemented some other things. The goal is to provide 300 to 400 officers with additional training and knowledge, and new tools, and have these officers available at any time and location to work to defuse the situations where police shootings often occur.

POV: Civilian oversight is popular in a number of cities, but the police and the public often have different views of it. From the working officer's view, what is the role of civilian oversight?

Navarro: I've worked in Internal Affairs, which is the unit that works most closely with the civilian review board in San Diego. The board reviews all internal affairs cases of a certain nature, what we call Category 1 complaints. Those include excessive force, racial discrimination, and equal employment opportunity violations -- the relatively serious accusations. The board reviews the department's investigations and makes recommendations. They don't have subpoena power in San Diego. They review, and if there are questions, they bring them up. The benefit is that over the course of the board's existence, we've had a lot of different people on the board. And those couple of hundred people walk away from it knowing that the department does a pretty good job of investigating themselves. The internal affairs unit and the police department are not obligated to change a finding or to appear in front of the board and answer questions or things like that. But the board does result in a positive change in the community. They do get a lot of interaction from some groups, from some people.

POV: Are civilian oversight boards and police departments inherently opposing interests?

Navarro: I think we have a fairly positive relationship with the board members. That speaks positively of the administration and the investigative side of internal affairs. We do effectively police ourselves. One of the important issues is that there's always going to be a discrepancy between what the community and academic view as effective community policing and what law enforcement officers view as effective community policing. In the time I've been involved, there's a feeling among some of the academics in this particular field that we're never doing enough. From the law enforcement side, there's a feeling that we're bending over backwards to do as much as we can. There's a disparity between those two views. I feel that there's a traditional way to do things, and we can modify it, but there are some components of community policing that just can't be fully implemented. It's important to make sure that there are open lines of communication. We don't have the same problem as Los Angeles with mistrust or issues between the community and law enforcement. And that's not just because we're lucky. We don't have those problems because we've made extensive efforts to establish and maintain lines of communication between the department and the citizens.

Sergeant Joe Navarro has been with the San Diego Police Department for 23 years. In the 1990s he was one of two officers in charge of supervising San Diego's Neighborhood Policing Initiative. He is currently a team sergeant in the Gang Suppression unit.