ESCONDIDO — A recent review of public records by the San Diego Union-Tribune shows that in the last 20 years, 217 people have died at the hands of police in San Diego County. More than half — 114 people — were Black or Latino.
Of those 217 people, 12 people died at the hands of the Escondido Police Department. Nine of the police-related deaths in Escondido occurred between 2001 to 2011.
The city of Escondido makes up about 4.5% of the county’s total population but accounts for 5.5% of these police-related deaths.
In comparison, Chula Vista, which spends the least on law enforcement per capita, makes up 8.1% of the county’s total population, yet only accounts for 1.8% of the police-related deaths in the report.
Escondido City Council recently approved a $45.6 million police department budget, sparking criticism from many residents who are calling on the city to divest funds from police and reallocate them to non-police forms of public safety, such as social services and other community resources.
Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara told The Coast News that, though he “empathizes” with the “defund the police” initiative, the city spends less on law enforcement per capita than all other county agencies except Chula Vista.
Though it may not defund the police, the city says it is working with the North County division of the NAACP to put protocols and policies in place to reform the department.
“The first thing we did was a review of the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ campaign, which we were already following almost all of those policies, but there is always room for improvement,” McNamara said. “Now, we’re looking at: ‘Are we doing the proper training?’ For example, if an officer has training from when they were in the police academy, does that officer remember that class 20 years later or are those things that we need to consistently be working on?”
Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso, who took over as chief in January 2020, said that the department has been working on de-escalation techniques and further training for years, but is now working to refine those policies and implement more, while continuing to work within the community.
“Our involvement in our community is always something that we’re trying to improve,” Varso said. “Through our Escondido Police Athletic League (PAL), our partnership with Escondido Education COMPACT, and working in early youth intervention programs and gang intervention programs, we’re trying to play our part to not just be on the criminal enforcement side of things, but also on the intervention side of things.”
Regarding the concern of systemic racial bias within the Escondido Police Department, Varso said he hasn’t seen anything that has led him to believe there are racist police officers in his department.
“I see officers that go out of their way to, not just enforce the law, but to protect people, to help people, to buy groceries for people, to be a part of the community and serve, and race doesn’t play a factor in those decisions of who gets what kind of quality of service,” Varso said. “I think we do a good job of serving everyone in the community regardless of their background.”
Both McNamara and Varso said new policies and training programs are in the works and will be implemented in the near future.