Monday Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso sat down to an interview about the department’s “culture” and why an incident like that which caused the death of George Floyd would never happen here.
Several hours later the chief personally demonstrated his commitment to peaceful community relations by crossing the street from the police and fire headquarters to meet with leaders of a peaceful demonstration.
But before that happened we engaged the chief in a wide-ranging discussion.
“What happened to George Floyd was nothing less than awful,” said Varso. “Awful that it happened at the hands of a police officer.”
He continued, “I know it wouldn’t happen in Escondido for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that we don’t allow anything in our policy that would allow an officer to put a leg on somebody’s neck. That is an absolute no-go area for us for obvious reasons. It’s a threat to somebody’s life and it’s somewhere we wouldn’t go.”
But it goes beyond that: “The other part of it is, our department has a culture of training and a culture of professionalism—and what’s really important is that we have a culture of critically evaluating what is there in front of us. Since George Floyd’s arrest I have heard many of our officers speaking to this one thing. It is one of the most critical pieces to this, of recognizing those moments where we might even have the legal authority to do something within the law—to take some sort of action. But we take a step back to think what should we do in its totality. Is the risk to us, the risk to the community, to the person we are trying to apprehend, worth the potential negative outcome?”
Law enforcement officers get put into very difficult positions sometimes, the chief pointed out. “But the very important thing is if we are taking the time to evaluate where we are at any given moment. To evaluate that something we are doing is legal, it’s not in our best interests, it’s not in anyone’s best interests, so we slow things down or back away or find another resolution. And we have plenty of times where we have done just that.”
In the case of the Floyd murder, it wasn’t just one rogue officer. Three officers stood by and watched. Shouldn’t one of those officers have objected to what was going on and stopped it? Shouldn’t that be part of the police culture too?
“Yeah, it’s interesting that you mention that,” said Varso. “I took over as chief in January and just two weeks ago I met with every single person in my police department. Talking about what my expectations were for the department and what I expected as an exceptional police department. To make sure we always are exceptional.”
He continued, “One of the things I spoke to the group was just what you are referencing. It’s not just the supervisor’s job to look out for their fellow co-workers. It’s all of our job to make sure that high bar of expectation I have set as a chief is also something they are holding each other to. And that if they see one of their peers having a bad day or things not going as they should that I have an expectation they would step in. I’m confident that they would because I’ve seen that demonstrated—and not at the level of what you see with George Floyd. But if a police officer is in the moment and someone from another vantage point on our team sees something the rest of us have not, I am confident they would not hesitate to point that out.”
The Minneapolis police officer in question, Derek Chauvin, had a long list of complaints against him. I asked what transparent procedure the department has to follow up on complaints against officers.
“I saw that same story and frankly I was shocked,” said Varso. “I have never heard of that kind of behavior. In our department that wouldn’t have been tolerated. That had to have been addressed. It will be interesting to see why it wasn’t.”
He added, “We comply with state law as to when records need to be made available and there are some legal restrictions . What’s important for the public to know is that I take allegations very, very seriously and our internal affairs division reports directly to me. There is no one in between the sergeant that runs that division and me. I hear every complaint that comes in. I’m updated on every investigation to make sure we are doing everything correctly. And that we are looking into everything thoroughly. I think that’s the important part.”
Varso continued, “If we are making a mistake we have to own that mistake and learn from it. That is something that again comes down to the culture of the police department. Every single person we hire to our police department, I and the captains on our team sit down with that person. There’s a couple of things that we tell them specifically. One of them is if you are dishonest, we will fire you. If you make a mistake we expect absolute honesty. That too ingrains the culture of being a well-trained police department.”
Should people in Escondido feel safe and secure this week?
“Yeah, I think so,” replied the chief. “There have been some events but so far what I have seen are people who are rightfully concerned about what happened to George Floyd.”
He noted the event on Wednesday of this week where he and other public officials would be attending a “bend the knee” observance. So far all of the events around town have been peaceful, but that hasn’t stopped the department from beefing up its personnel.
“We have added police officers for two reasons,” said the chief. “One to make sure that if something were to happen here that we are ready for it, but more importantly to make sure we are ready if there is a big law enforcement need in San Diego County and we have been helping with that in other areas of the county as well.”
He noted that EPD officers had been sent to La Mesa, where there was considerable unrest over the weekend. Several officers were also on standby in the City of San Diego.
What about the crime spree?
I asked Chief Varso one question that was off the topic of George Floyd protests: The one man “crime spree” that involved a man who was cited over and over again but never taken to jail because of a state policy that prevented that from happening. And which, by the way, is still in force in California.
“That case happened because of COVID-19 and the directive the California Judicial Council handed down that was in effect a zero bail policy—and which limited our ability to book anybody,” said Varso.
Note: The California Judicial Council is described as “the policymaking body of the California courts, the largest court system in the nation. Under the leadership of the Chief Justice and in accordance with the California Constitution, the council is responsible for ensuring the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice.”
Varso noted that arrests are only permitted for one of 13 offenses. “So the great majority of cases were things that we couldn’t arrest for. We could only issue citations. So in the case of Mr. Timothy Alvarado, he was found in a stolen car, led police on a pursuit and there was no action that we could take except give him a citation at the scene. Similarly when we pulled him over for speeding, he was released. And in a series of events he was out in another stolen car and another stolen car.”
Chief Varso continued, “Unfortunately, while I believe that the directive in jail bookings was well-intentioned, a piece of me becomes concerned over public safety and we don’t overdo something in that area in order to accomplish another area. That policy is still in force. I haven’t heard an update yet on what that will be reversed. Our Sheriff Bill Gore has made it known that he has procedures in place that would keep prisoners safe from illness and he has the ability to house them at this point.”