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New San Diego police chief unveils sweeping changes to department structure

The overhaul reduces top-level positions, adds civilian professionals and introduces new roles to address inefficiencies and evolving challenges in policing

San Diego police Chief Scott Wahl

San Diego police Chief Scott Wahl speaks during a swearing in ceremony at San Diego Police Plaza on Friday, June 7, 2024 in San Diego, CA. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Meg McLaughlin /TNS

By Lyndsay Winkley
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — After months of foreshadowing, San Diego Police Chief Scott Wahl announced just days into his tenure as top cop that sweeping changes are being made to the department’s decades-old organizational model.

The new structure is leaner at the top, with four fewer assistant chief spots, and weaves in more civilian professionals at the department’s highest levels, including an assistant director of finance. The shifts mean some of the agency’s top leaders will be demoted — something that hasn’t happened in decades.

The chief has been teasing his plans for a reorganization since his nomination by Mayor Todd Gloria in March. He’s noted a few times that the complexity of policing and the department’s growth has outpaced the current organization’s capabilities. Wahl said the new model is designed to help the department work more efficiently and with more balanced workloads so it’s well positioned to tackle urgent challenges such as recruitment and retention struggles, the community’s desire for more engagement and transparency, lengthy response times and racial disparities.

“We’ve been using the same organizational structure for four decades now, and it was very effective in the ’90s,” Wahl said in an interview Wednesday. Now, however, policing is changing more rapidly than the old model can keep up with. “We’re just slowly sinking. So this change is a big reset.”

Some of the current structure’s shortcomings have long been obvious. For example, one assistant chief oversees nine division captains while two other assistant chiefs have only one captain each. There are also department functions, like internal communications, management of the fleet of patrol vehicles, officer wellness, juvenile services and overtime, that could use additional development and oversight, Wahl said. Other responsibilities aren’t centralized the way they could be, like the efforts of the department’s community resource officers.

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To help address these issues, Wahl is adding 11 new lieutenant positions and four new captain spots and replacing four assistant chiefs with commanders — a lower rank that sits between captain and assistant chief. The new spots were created by reclassifying existing positions, some of which have long been vacant, Wahl said.

The new chief will be conducting interviews for all assistant chief and commander spots, with the hopes of having his new leadership team finalized by Aug. 3 . That introduces the possibility that current assistant chiefs may not remain on the top floor, and it’s unclear if all will choose to stay.

An assistant chief hasn’t been demoted since 2000.

“I made it very clear my expectation is that commanders need to be a master at networking in the community and with our cops,” he said. “I see them as a bridge in our community policing efforts, in bringing that community-supported policing approach.”

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The department’s new structure can be broken down into five areas of focus. The largest is Operations, which encompasses all the department’s patrol divisions, its investigative teams and its specialty crews like SWAT and neighborhood services. Planning and Intelligence include units that handle special events and emergencies as well as internal affairs, and Logistics houses areas such as dispatch, human resources and training.

The final two areas center on civilian employees.

The first is Finance, which will be run by an assistant director — an equivalent to an assistant chief — who will oversee payroll, grants and other fiscal endeavors. The Police Department’s budget will be nearly $660 million next fiscal year.

“Being fiscally responsible is important to me, and I think it’s important to our taxpayers,” Wahl said. “We’re not for profit, but we’re also not for loss. I want to make sure that we’re spending the tax dollars we have efficiently and effectively.”

Over the years, some community members have argued the department’s budget is bloated and that more money should be funneled into community-based crime prevention programs. Francine Maxwell , a community advocate and former president of the San Diego NAACP branch, said that while she appreciated the swift reorganization — a shift some felt was overdue — she said she would have preferred to see more resources being moved back into the community instead of redistributed throughout the department.

“What I envisioned was something that cut the fat at the top, not just bring it down,” she said.

The second civilian-focused area is an advisory group featuring two new positions — a community liaison manager and a public affairs manager. These two additions will help the department center its community policing initiatives, something Wahl has talked about often over the last several months, and help the department better coordinate with City Hall on legislative or policy mandates, such as the city’s surveillance and street vending ordinances.

Wahl said that empowering civilian staff members will allow the department to “maximize the amount of cops we have out in the field, instead of pulling them in to do office jobs.”

He said he wants to make sure that, like sworn staff, civilian employees who want to stay with the department have room to grow professionally. The department will benefit from the perspectives these experts will bring, he said.

“It’s expertise and advice from somebody that’s not conditioned the way a police officer is to see the world a certain way,” Wahl said.

News of the reorganization caused a stir when it was announced internally at two separate meetings and in a department-wide video Wednesday morning. While many acknowledged some of the proposed changes were necessary, there were concerns.

Some department and community members questioned whether it was the right move to add more lieutenants and captains to a department that has sometimes struggled to identify and develop its leaders. Police officials said in 2022 that about 700 officers had five years or less of experience.

Wahl acknowledged the additional promotions will require development on the front end but said he hoped a larger crop of leaders will help diversify the talent pool for top spots down the line.

Over the next few weeks, the department will be fine-tuning the coming changes. The Police Department is made up of about 2,500 employees, including about 1,885 sworn employees, about 500 professional staff and another 150 or so part-time workers. The department has long struggled to fill vacant positions, including more than 180 officer spots.

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