New San Diego Police Chief Makes Sweeping Changes to Department Structure

June 20, 2024
After months of foreshadowing, new San Diego Police Chief Scott Wahl announced just days into his tenure that sweeping changes are being made to the department’s decades-old organizational model.

SAN DIEGO, California -- After months of foreshadowing, new San Diego Police Chief Scott Wahl announced just days into his tenure 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 have outpaced the current organization’s capabilities.

Wahl, a 26-year veteran of the Police Department, led the Northern Division, which includes La Jolla, as captain in 2021-22. He took over as chief June 7 following the retirement of former chief David Nisleit.

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 employee recruitment and retention, 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 this week. 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,” he said.

Among the current structure’s shortcomings, Wahl said: One assistant chief oversees nine division captains, while two other assistant chiefs have only one captain each; some department functions, such as internal communications, management of the fleet of patrol vehicles, officer wellness, juvenile services and overtime, could use additional development and oversight; and other responsibilities aren’t centralized the way they could be, like the efforts of the department’s community resource officers.

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

The chief will be conducting interviews for all assistant chief and commander spots in 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 whether 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.”

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, investigative teams and specialty crews such as SWAT and neighborhood services. Planning and Intelligence includes units that handle special events and emergencies as well as internal affairs, and Logistics houses areas such as dispatch, human resources and training.

The two remaining areas center on civilian employees. One 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 in the coming 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 that the department’s budget is bloated and 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 appreciates the swift reorganization — a shift some felt was overdue — she said she would have preferred to see more resources being moved 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 other civilian-focused area is an advisory group featuring two new positions — a community liaison manager and a public affairs manager. The additions are intended to help the department center its community policing initiatives and better coordinate with City Hall on legislative or policy mandates, such as the city’s surveillance and street vending ordinances.

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

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 they 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 meetings and in a department-wide video June 12. While many acknowledged some of the proposed changes are necessary, there were concerns.

Some department and community members questioned whether it’s 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 hopes a larger crop of leaders will help diversify the talent pool for top spots down the line.

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

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report. ♦

©2024 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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