In the slightly more than one year on the job, Police Chief Ed Varso has shown himself to be the right man for the job by being the right man for the hour. The man the circumstances demanded. As the old English proverb says, “cometh the hour, cometh the man.”
Which is just a high toned way of saying that sometimes fate puts us in a place where we can do the most good by following our instincts. That has happened with Varso, I think.
His defining moment, at least for the foreseeable future, was the moment, last June, when several hundred demonstrators gathered along Centre City Parkway, across the street from the Police/Fire Headquarters.
It was a tense time. In many other cities across the land, including cities in San Diego County, such moments degenerated into destruction and chaos. Many merchants in Escondido fully expected something like that here and boarded up the vulnerable glass fronts of their businesses. It didn’t happen.
To a great degree that can be credited to Chief Varso, who decided to defuse the situation by crossing the street and meeting with, listening to and eventually linking hands with, the protestors. It certainly helped that no one, especially no members of the police force, were offering excuses for the obvious excess in the May 25 murder, of George Floyd. Whose choking at the hands of a rogue policeman in Minneapolis set off marching, flames and destruction nationwide. Virtually everybody felt that some reforms were needed. The question was, what form would they take?
It could have been a cringeworthy moment. However Varso handled it with grace and dignity. At Monday’s press conference on the police department’s new policy of de-escalation (see our front page story), the chief showed that he is still the man for the job. And that he has been listening.
The new policy isn’t a surrender to wokeness or political correctness. It isn’t an apology. It is, instead a policy for treating all people with respect, and always keeping in mind that the purpose of policing is public safety. If that means sometimes stepping away from a situation to prevent it from escalating into something violent and tragic, then that path should be followed.
As Chief Varso has put it, when police interact with the public, it is often on the, worst day of their lives. They are often having a very bad time, and having the police there can make it worse. So, if officers treat touchy situations with sensitivity and with cultural understanding when that is appropriate, they can become the ones residents turn to for help when that worst day of their lives arrives.
Supporters of law enforcement, of which I number myself, sometimes tend to take the position that the police can do no wrong and that in any confrontation they are in the right. I don’t believe that is true. I do believe that when law enforcement interacts with the public they need to remember who pays the bills.
The police department is not operated for the benefit of the officers, but for the benefit of the public. The motto “protect and serve,” couldn’t be more appropriate. Although that isn’t the official motto of the Escondido police, this sentence IS found on the police website: “To enhance public safety and the quality of life in our community by fostering trust and preserving peace.”
Chief Ed Varso is showing that he is living that message.