This is a good thing for San Diego Police. SDPD hires many people who have not lived in San Diego before or have had exposure to different cultures. It is healthy to have people learn about different culture because history has shown that too often different equals suspicious to many.
I was once a domestic violence prosecutor. It was interesting to learn how the Imam plays a big part in cultures here in San Diego. I love history, but I did not know there was a rift between Somali and Yemenese. It was something that was learned and gave me context about the case at hand.
I remember when I was a district attorney and my colleague was telling me about a case she had. She did not know how important a quincinera was in Spanish culture and how causing an incident there (with a family member) could be a dangerous situation. Learning about these nuances help law enforcement understand the facts of a case. It is good to be SDPD do this.
Only a day after graduating from the 103rd police academy, dozens of officers in barely worn uniforms filed into the Islamic Center of San Diego for a crash course on customs within the Muslim and Arab-American community.
Officers peppered religious leaders with a variety of questions, from how to most respectfully search a Muslim woman to what code enforcement struggles the Islamic population faces.
The dialogue was just the sort the San Diego Police Department is encouraging its officers to have in a quest to re-energize its philosophy of community policing. That effort continued for the graduates on Saturday, which marked the start of a revamped training program with a special focus on community engagement.
The four-week program will teach new officers different ways to get plugged into a community - from visiting community groups and centers, like the Clairemont Islamic center, to attending neighborhood meetings and events.
Community policing is about solving problems now that might lead to crime later. It's more about prevention than response, and to do it well, officers need to work closely with the residents and merchants in their area. In the 1990s, few departments, if any, were better at it than San Diego's.
But when auditors finished a yearlong investigation into department misconduct in March, about 20 percent of the changes it recommended focused on how to better forge community partnerships.
The report confirmed what had been suspected for years. For a kaleidoscope of reasons, staffing shortages ranking near the top, San Diego officers weren't the community policing officers they once were.
Related - Audit: SDPD flaws led to misconduct
"We're doing some good work here but we're not the problem solvers we used to be or engaging the community like we used to be," said San Diego police Lt. Natalie Stone, who works with department training.
In response, department leaders have made a variety of changes, particularly in how it trains its newest officers.
The department was already in the process of overhauling training for recent academy graduates, but Capt. Brian Ahearn said it was the audit results that prompted leaders to design a program that would "expose, integrate and immerse trainees into the fabric of the community."
Before, academy graduates would get a week of agency-specific training before starting their patrols.
Now, new officers will take part in a four-week observational period before hitting the streets. Training officers will demonstrate the daily duties of a competent police officer while placing a special focus on engagement with community members.
"We're helping them understand there's a lot more to being an officer than answering the radio, writing tickets and putting people in jail," said Officer Ivan Sablan, who helps coordinate field training. "It's about reaching out to the community. That's part of being a cop, too."
Trainers will work with community resource officers - expert liaisons between citizens and the department - to get acquainted with a variety of neighborhood resource centers and events that might make for good visits.
A San Diego spokeswoman for the ACLU said the training was an interesting development, but it's effectiveness would hinge on the quality of the interactions between officers and the community.
"It's certainly good that the department is emphasizing relationships and a closer connection with communities..., but I think the value or the impact will depend on what the trainees are doing," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the ACLU of California's criminal justice and drug policy director. "What are they observing and to what extent are they engaging community members?"
Although the department is pushing trainers to make community engagement a priority, it didn't set a minimum number of community visits. Stone said that's because they don't want trainers to go through the motions just for the sake of a quota.
"Do we want quality, or do we want quantity?" she said. "... We want them to learn the importance of investing in community resources."
Officers said they were are enthusiastic about the department's renewed focus on community interaction.
"This is hallway talk. People are excited about it," said Officer Richard Valenzuela, who also helps coordinate training. "People are asking why we didn't do this before."
Judging by the reaction at the Islamic Center of San Diego, community groups are cautiously optimistic about the change as well.
Basheer Yadwi, an education and outreach coordinator at the center, waved as the academy graduates departed after their visit. He described the center's relationship with the department as "working," but "not optimal."
He said he hopes that with more communication and understanding, the relationship would not only improve, but the dialogue would mature and evolve to address issues important to Arab-Americans, such as racial profiling.
"We have a long way (to go) in terms of having an open dialogue in terms of these issues that are on the back burner," he said. "We want to bring them to the front burner, so to speak."
Ahearn said the first batch of officers is scheduled to complete the new training on Sept. 11.
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