The August 12 virtual meeting of the Escondido City Council included a discussion for reforming the police department, a 4-0 vote to extend the temporary eviction moratorium to the end of September, and a discussion for reining in the city’s high campaign limits, which are among the highest in the county.
Police Chief Ed Varso presented a report on Public Safety Hiring and Practices. He emphasized that his “forward thinking” department strives to treat people fairly. That attitude began long before George Floyd’s death at the hand of Minneapolis police officers in May.
Before that incident he had met with his staff to announce his mission statement “To protect our community through exceptional police service.” He said, “The reality is, when people call the police they are having a really bad day, perhaps the worst day of their life. They are counting on us to treat them fairly and bring a resolution to the problem they are facing.” That contact has the potential to forever seal their perception of the police department, he said.
He said the department tries to hire “the ideal Escondido police officer,” and hire within the community. They employ the cadet program, hire part-time positions and recently instituted the first ever EPD recruitment program.
The Escondido Police Department is pretty choosey about hires, said Varso. In 2019 out of 1,445 applicants they hired 15. Its 4-6 month hiring process includes a written test, physical test, background questionnaire, interview, detailed background investigation, medical and psychological exams, among other screening processes.
Several public comments were read after Varso’s presentation. One suggested police attend training at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Another asked the police to create “a society of inclusion.” Others called for a civilian commission to oversee the police.
Mike Morasco started off: “Does every police department have issues? Yes, but I think we have a department and a leader and support for EPD that is exemplary. I’d like to see this excitement and interest continue. I’d caution against comparing other cities, other agencies against ours, and projecting other illnesses that might exist onto our police officers.
Councilmember Olga Diaz congratulated Varso for posting a video that explained a police shooting several weeks ago. She said his information on reform is missing a key element: “Input from the community.” One key reform she will press for is a citizens oversight committee. “I don’t want it to be made up of mayor appointments,” she added. “I want appointees from each district that reflects our diversity. Right now you need to be part of the ‘in crowd’ to be appointed.”
Diaz added, “It’s not who is on the council now. It’s about a policy that protects the future of the city. I think it’s time past for us to set up a citizens committee.”
She also argued for hiring standards that require a college degree and police officers that live in Escondido. “I find that to be a key component to connect police to their community,” she said.
She asked Varso to apologize for the department’s past behavior. “You can’t build trust until you apologize for things,” said Diaz. “We have a history of shady practices and checkpoints. “Some bad stuff happened before the state changed the law. I’d find a way to apologize to people or reimburse them for stealing their cars.” She added, “We should make amends.”
Councilmember Consuelo Martinez said she saw the process, “as a beginning of a longtime conversation. I appreciate that you led with a call for change. I first need to understand your department more deeply before we can make recommendations of change.”
Varso referenced the “8 can’t wait” website (8cantwait.org) which emphasizes eight reforms, many of which have been instituted in American cities: 1) Requires De-Escalation, 2) Duty to Intervene, 3) Bans Chokeholds and Strangleholds, 4) Requires Warning Before Shooting, 5) Bans Shooting at Moving Vehicles, 6) Exhaust Alternatives Before Shooting, 7) Use of Force Continuum and 8) Comprehensive Force Reporting.
“We fulfill all eight,” said Varso. “De-escalation is a culture with us. My goal is to make sure we have a robust policy. We do comprehensive report writing on all incidents. We recently banned the carotid restraint. Use of force continuum is an old policy but something we already do.” Note: Force Continuum is a guideline as to how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation. EPD’s guidelines and policy manual are posted at: police.escondido.org/home.aspx
One challenge of hiring police officers, said Varso, “is finding those with a background to get into law enforcement. A lot of folks try to be police officers who have something in their background that prevents it.”
They have found that personal referrals are one of the best recruitment tools. Varso is focusing on local residents. “The idea is to bring folks from Escondido and walk them through the hiring process to show them what they should prepare for.”
He noted that the department has a “Use of Force Committee” composed of experienced officers. They review reports and body camera footage to see if there were any training deficiencies and that the officer did the best he/she could.
Martinez commented that the council has heard a lot from the community about the department. “I want to commend you,” she said. “You have been on the job just seven months. I want to thank you for being open and willing to hear from the community. Transparency is crucial. The most important thing is to continue to communicate with our community.”
Mayor Paul McNamara also thanked Varso. “This is the beginning of a dialogue. I believe we all want to get this right. To do that we need people who want to participate. So that we get the feedback. The important thing is your willingness to listen and respond to community needs. After that, it’s details.”
Moratorium on Temporary Evictions
The council voted 4-0 to extend the moratorium on temporary evictions until the end of September. It has extended this ordinance three times since April.
City Attorney Mike McGuinness noted that the ordinance doesn’t relieve tenants of their rent obligation, but gives extra time to pay it. The city’s authority is based on an executive order of the governor. McGuinness said the legislature is poised to sunset this authority in September. Statistics indicate that as of August 6, 80% of tenants pay their rent.
Several public comments were read into the record. One landlord complained that a renter is not paying rent in spite of getting CARES money. “This can’t go on forever,” he wrote. “We are facing foreclosure. We will be homeless landlords and renters alike. If you wish to help people pay the rent, pay their rent.”
Another complained about a person squatting in a rental who has a history of being in and out of prison and involved in fights and stabbings. Worst of all, no masks or social distancing! He has not been reported because people fear retribution. “No matter how many times the police are called, without bail they are back in hours. They can’t be evicted. I’m a 70-year old woman and this is giving me PTSD.”
The city attorney said that in both cases, the ordinance doesn’t cover them. “It only protects tenants who provide notice to landlord to show that their inability to pay is COVID related.”
Morasco said he was torn because “people are affected on both sides, renters and landlord. It’s a hardship for everyone.” He favored extending the moratorium another month, which would still give renters an opportunity to interact with and come to agreement with property owners on back rents.
Martinez said, “These are very difficult times” and wanted to extend the moratorium until September 30.
Diaz also favored extending the ordinance. “It’s time we set up a hotline for people who have questions about how it works. There is too much room for misunderstanding what this does or does not do.” She asked if they could direct some CARES Act funds to paying rents to landlords when they can’t get it from the renter. “Some are dependent on rental properties for their living expenses. We are causing a different harm in a different area,” she said.
City Manager Jeff Epp said the council already earmarked CARES Act money for businesses. “Whether you want spend some on rental assistance will pose some logistical issues for us. I can’t tell you right now if we can modify those documents,” he said.
McNamara asked Epp to explore getting the word out so residents contact the city about this problem. “We are recovering a little slower than the rest of county because of our industries.” He supported a September 30 deadline.
Morasco worried about extending the date that far because of the city’s potential liability. “That’s why I want to be as conservative as possible how far we push it.”
McGuinness reported on several approaches the council could take on lowering the spending limit for campaign contributions.
Currently the personal contribution limit is $4,300 per single election.
A recent state law limits campaign contributions to $4,700 but municipalities and counties may set their own limits lower or higher. Other cities in the county range from no limit to between$100-$1,090. Of cities with limits, Escondido is one of the highest.
Several communications from residents expressed concerns over elected officials being beholden to developers, noting that three candidates or city council received donations of $4,300 from Safari Highlands.
Two others asked that the mayor’s election be moved to the presidential election year to encourage more participation.
McNamara said the current $4,300 limit is too much. “I could live with $250 per council and $1000 for mayor,” he said. “I do think—and this is the tricky part, if someone gives you the maximum amount they did it with the expectation you are going to vote their way. We should have restrictions so the vote can’t be bought. The residents of the city want some protection.”
He also time limits for a donor to give to an official before and after their item comes up for a vote. In some cities, if someone donates to a campaign, that official may not vote on the donor’s project for a year before and a year after the donation. He added, “It’s hard to raise money and it’s not a pleasant activity.”
Morasco said, “I understand why people feel this way. Developers are a target.” He said the Sierra Club supports such limits because “they don’t agree with developments and it’s based on personal positions and opinions.” He added, “From Day One I’ve said I love development, residential homes, apartments, tract homes. It have always supported and am desirous to see development.” Such developments as Eureka Springs “are beautiful. I’m always going to be pursuing growth that will bring more. Someone hears that and says ‘That’s a guy I want to support.’ The Sierra Club might donate to someone who says the opposite. They have the opportunity to donate to a candidate with a certain thought, feeling or perspective that never gets challenged when they vote that way.”
He called the current limit “pretty high” and said $1,500 for citywide elections and $750 for council elections, “would be reasonable.” He added, “I think we vote on the merit of the project and not on who contributes. That’s way I’ve always done it.”
Martinez agreed current limits, “are very high. I’m thinking of $500 for council and $1800 for mayor.” She said it’s mostly developers who donate the limit. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Diaz supported $1,000 for citywide elections and $500 for council elections, with a $50 increase each election cycle. “I would also like the rules for not contributing a year before or a year after. That would dry up contributions.” She added, “We had a former mayor who could hustle people for the largest amount, and people didn’t like that.”
The city attorney will bring back a proposal that reflects most of these thoughts for the council to review.