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New San Diego Police Training Places Focus on Community Engagement

The latest police academy training class for the San Diego Police Department will be the first to involve training dedicated to community engagement. The San Diego Police Department is encouraging officers to focus on policing the community in a culturally sensitive manner with this revamped training program.

The program is four weeks long and will teach the newly-minted officers ways to plug into the community. For example, they will be visiting various community groups and centers to attend neighborhood meetings and events. The SDPD’s community approach to policing is “about solving problems now that might lead to crime later. It’s more about prevention than response, and to do it well, officers need to work closely with the residents and merchants in their area. In the 1990s, few departments, if any, were better at it than San Diego’s.”

A yearlong audit that ended this past March revealed that community engagement has slipped in San Diego for a number of reasons, including staffing shortages. SDPD Lieutenant Natalie Stone said, “We’re doing some good work here but we’re not the problem solvers we used to be or engaging the community like we used to be.” In response to this slip in community engagement, the department has made a number of changes, notably the overhaul of the training of incoming officers. The SDPD has designed a training program that will immerse the new officers into the community. New Officers will now take part in a month-long observational period with a special focus on community engagement.

Officer Ivan Sablan, a field training coordinator explained that the SDPD is “helping them understand there’s a lot more to being an officer than answering the radio, writing tickets and putting people in jail. It’s about reaching out to the community. That’s part of being a cop, too.”

“It’s certainly good that the department is emphasizing relationships and a closer connection with communities…but I think the value or the impact will depend on what the trainees are doing. What are they observing and to what extent are they engaging community members?” Margaret Dooley- Sammuli, San Diego spokeswoman for the ACLU explained.

SDPD officers are enthusiastic about this new focus on community interaction. Officer Richard Valenzuela, another officer who helps coordinate training, says that people are excited and wondering why they did not focus on community engagement before. As part of the training, the new officers visited the Islamic Center of San Diego, and those involved with the center seem enthusiastic and optimistic about the change. Basheer Yadwi, an education and outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center, is hopeful that with more engagement by officers, the relationship between police and Arab-Americans will improve and will encourage dialogue around important issues, such as racial profiling. “We have a long way to go in terms of having an open dialogue in terms of these issues that are on the back burner. We want to bring them to the front burner, so to speak,” he said.

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