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North County uses different models of law enforcement accountability

REGION — Law enforcement operates by two models — one political, the other bureaucratic — which perform largely parallel functions, but differ in how they’re accountable to their constituencies.

The sheriff is a constitutionally mandated county office elected by voters. City police departments, led by appointed police chiefs, are optional parts of municipal administrations.

Nine cities countywide, including most in North County — San Marcos, Vista, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar — contract with San Diego County Sheriff William Gore’s department for law enforcement services.

“In these cities the Sheriff’s Department serves as their police department, providing a full range of law enforcement services including patrol, traffic and investigative services,” according to the sheriff’s web site. The sheriff also operates countywide detention centers and provides security for the San Diego Superior Court.

Three North County cities — Oceanside, Carlsbad and Escondido — choose to operate their own police departments.

Elected officials don’t directly oversee these departments. Instead, police chiefs fall under city managers, who are municipal chief executives and also unelected.

Oceanside, for example, expressly prohibits direct political oversight of city employees. According to its “Non-Interference in Administrative Affairs” policy, the city council shall not “deal with any administrative officer … except through the city manager”; “dictate, suggest or interfere with appointments, promotions, compensations, disciplinary actions, contracts, requisitions, purchases or other administrative recommendations or actions of the city manager … or of department heads under the city manager”; or “attempt to influence or coerce the city manager … in the making of any appointment to, or removal from, any city office or employment”.

The Coast News found only one California municipality — the City of Santa Clara — with its own police department independent from the county sheriff but with an elected police chief. The state legislature amended the city’s charter in 1953, enabling Santa Clara to elect its police chiefs to four-year terms.

An independent police department allows the city manager to hire the police chief based on expertise, not votes, Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss said in a June 22 interview. The appointment system also affords flexibility, in that the city can redeploy police resources without having to negotiate first with the sheriff, he said.

“A lot of folks blur the line between the role and authority of the council and that of the city manager,” Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara said in a June 22 email. “The council provides policy guidance. The city manager turns that guidance into operational execution.

“The city manager is the operational oversight for the Chief of Police. That is not to say the council lives in the dark. But a city employee, to include a police officer, who fails to meet the standard of conduct is disciplined, fired, etc. by the Chief of Police or [applicable] department head.”

“We do receive periodic reports [from the police department] and we are briefed on issues that rise to the level of the council,” he said. “[Our police are] adding more self-scrutiny knowing the importance this incident [the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis] represents.”

The Oceanside Police Department also handles discipline internally. Last month, City Councilwoman Esther Sanchez told The Coast News she requested information on all complaints against officers over the past 20 years. The department responded, but supplied insufficient “context,” so she’s now waiting on supplemental information, she said July 6.

In general, “urban police departments were created not to parallel sheriff functions but to address a crisis in public order,” Donald Dripps, a University of San Diego law professor, said in a June 24 email. “In England and the early years of the U.S., public order was maintained by constables, posses and … justices of the peace. Urbanization made this system intolerably lax. … The uniformed, 24/7 patrol presence was the response.”

Today, “there is a general effort to insulate the police from partisan politics, not so much because policing is apolitical (we all know it isn’t) but because we don’t want officers hired and fired based on party affiliations and personal connections,” he said. “Some less-densely populated areas, all over the country, get by without a municipal force; if you ring 911 the dispatcher’s assets are sheriff’s deputies or highway patrol.

“But, wherever you got even modest cities, they felt the need for round-the-clock proactive patrol and rapid response. The rural areas understandably are not enthusiastic about paying for a public function they don’t use; I expect that’s a big part of the division of labor [between sheriffs and police].”

Neither the Carlsbad City Council nor the police departments from Oceanside, Carlsbad or Escondido responded to a request for comment.