Recent events in policing have impacted different agencies in different ways. Today’s Critical Issues report features three police chiefs: Miami Chief Jorge Colina; La Mesa, California Chief Walt Vasquez; and Edmonton, Alberta Chief Dale McFee.

-- Chief Vasquez, who retired Friday after serving as the La Mesa, California police chief for over five years, spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about his career and how the recent national discussion about policing has impacted him and his agency.

-- Chief Colina discussed a video he recently released that clarified the circumstances of an arrest after misinformation about the incident spread online.

-- Chief McFee shared how he’s moving forward to enact a new vision for the Edmonton Police Service.


La Mesa, California Chief Walt Vasquez

Chuck Wexler: How much time did you spend in the San Diego Police Department, and how did it prepare you to be a chief?

Chief Walt Vasquez: I spent almost 29 years with the San Diego Police Department before I was blessed to become the 11th chief of the La Mesa Police Department. Being with a large department, I had the opportunity to work many different assignments. I was fortunate to be mentored by role models who I looked up to. Some of the themes that stuck with me throughout my career, particularly the importance of policing with the support and partnership with the community, were taught to me by these mentors early on.

Wexler: You were involved in the San Diego Police Department’s problem-oriented policing initiative early in your career. How has impacted your approach to policing?

Chief Vasquez: I think it has impacted my entire career. I tell the citizens I work with now as a chief that we’re a better police department when we partner with the community. I know they’ve probably heard that before, but it’s true. Law enforcement is more effective, professional, and accepted when we partner with the community. I learned that 33 years ago as a young police officer, and I’ve embraced it ever since.

Wexler: Can you talk about what happened when then-Chief Bill Lansdowne transferred you from internal affairs to patrol?

Chief Vasquez: It was a shocker to me. Chief Lansdowne had been at the San Diego Police Department for about a year, and I received word from him that I was being transferred to patrol. At the time I was one of two internal affairs lieutenants and was the liaison with the civilian review board, so I had a tremendous amount of responsibility, which I enjoyed.

The culture of the department at the time was that if the internal affairs lieutenant was transferred, it was usually to a high-profile investigative assignment, like robbery, homicide, or vice. Bill Lansdowne transferred me to Southern Division patrol. I’m not knocking patrol, because it’s where we all start, and I believe it’s the most important assignment. But the transfer was outside our department culture.

I asked for a meeting with Chief Lansdowne and respectfully asked what I had done wrong. Chief Lansdowne told me it wasn’t a punishment. He was having major morale issues in that patrol division, and he thought I was the right person to fix those problems.

I was transferred to Southern Division patrol, and about a year later he promoted me to captain. What I learned from that incident, and from Bill Lansdowne, is that sometimes you need to go outside the culture and outside the norm in your decision making.

Wexler: What made you apply to be chief in La Mesa?

Chief Vasquez: I was an assistant chief with the San Diego Police Department, and the La Mesa chief of police job became open. La Mesa is a community of about 61,000 residents on the outskirts of San Diego, within San Diego County. Two things intrigued me about the job. For one, I had gone to high school in La Mesa and always valued that experience. And, due to the circumstances, there were no internal candidates who wanted the job or were available to become chief.

I put in for the job and was lucky enough to get it. I was sworn in April 6, 2015, and it’s one of the highlights of my law enforcement career.

Wexler: What is it like to go from an agency in a large city to one in a much smaller city?

Chief Vasquez: I think there are some plusses and minuses. The nuts and bolts of the work is the same. You’re still addressing crime issues, and the criminals don’t know boundaries. But in a small department I’ve found that I have to wear a lot more hats, and I have many more tasks that chiefs in larger departments may not have. I’ve embraced that. In some ways it’s similar to when I was a captain leading a division in the San Diego PD. With about 100 sworn and civilian team members, I know all their first names and all their families. I think that’s fantastic.

Wexler: What’s the best and worst part of being a police chief?

Chief Vasquez: Internally, one of the best parts is watching men and women grow into the profession after they have made the commitment to service in any capacity, because every position contributes to the safety of the citizens we serve. You can see that their heart is in the right place, and they want to protect and serve. It’s wonderful to watch them mature, grow, and truly love the profession more than the day they’ve started. It’s great to watch their excitement at academy graduations, but to see them 4-5 years later when they have experience and are still excited is pretty amazing to me.

One of the worst things is when I have to tell people that they’re no longer part of the profession. Many love the profession, but something happened so they’re not cut out to be a police officer. When you have to tell them that they can longer be a part of it, it can be difficult, but it’s necessary.

Externally, the worst is seeing people at their worst moments when they’re victims of crime. I hate to see that.

Some of the good times are the community connections and working with the community to solve crime or address community issues.

Wexler: How has the national discussion about policing impacted you and your agency?

Chief Vasquez: To be honest, it’s been very difficult for many reasons. When we had protests that eventually turned into a riot, it was one of the worst nights and mornings of my career.

After that tragic murder in Minneapolis, it’s been difficult to watch so many individuals going through pain. And I mean that for all those we serve here, whether they’re residents, business owners, or visitors. It breaks my heart how the looting and the burned buildings affected people and businesses. The concerns of those who are protesting, how upset they are, and the national discussion about equality and fairness is heartbreaking. When you talk to people, you can see the disappointment, anger, and fear on their faces and in their voices. It’s heart-wrenching and difficult. We’re trying to connect with people, support people, and understand their feelings. It’s not something I’ve seen before in my career.


Miami Chief Jorge Colina

In this profession, it’s not typical for us to chase around the media to ask for a clarification or a correction, because we’d be chasing them all the time.

What happened here was we arrested a protester who was on the sidewalk. We had observed that this was one of the protesters who kept going out in the street and stepping in front of traffic. We had issued warnings in the past, and this protester had been arrested in the past and knew the expectation there.

She was arrested on the sidewalk, posted video of her arrest on the sidewalk online, and said she had no idea why she was being arrested and that we were making targeted arrests of protest organizers. That was a serious allegation that concerned us, and it really concerned us when some local activists reposted it. Then we saw (civil rights attorney) Benjamin Crump posted it and commented on it.

I made a video where I included her comments, the video of her in the street, the video of her being arrested, the video that shows she understood the charges, and it shows the arresting officer showing concern for her comfort. It was just the polar opposite of what she described, and we put it out to the public.

Our credibility is very important. We’ve been so committed to working in the community, to community policing, and to the programs we’ve initiated to make sure the community knows that we’re here for them. Then someone so callously made it seem like that’s not the truth and that we’re recklessly abusing our authority. I just didn’t want that to take root, and for that to cultivate hate and further protest in someone else.

When I released this, I expected some level of backlash, because during these times unfortunately there’s backlash to everything we do. But many people reached out to say thanks for being transparent, speaking the truth, and showing your body camera videos. That was surprising from the public.

Another benefit was the reaction of the police officers, who were incredibly grateful for us sharing the truth. They’re out there on the front lines, and they want people to know the truth and that they’re out there to serve. They were grateful and felt like someone was speaking up for them.

How we police and lead our departments is constantly changing. For example, five or ten years ago it would be perfectly acceptable for a chief to say, “This incident is under investigation and I’m not commenting.” That time has come and gone.

Similarly, we’re living in a time when things are so polarized between the community and police, so I think that when something is inaccurately reported we have to step up and say, “Hold on a minute. Maybe something occurred here or elsewhere that you’re not happy about, and that’s okay. We know that tragedies like George Floyd have occurred, and that should not be tolerated. But in the community we work for, this is the truth and it needs to be spoken.” Otherwise someone else is dictating the narrative and it’s just perpetuating the problem.

I’d caution chiefs to consider their relationship with their local media before putting out something like this. The station that initially ran this story commented and kind of corrected the record, which I was happy about. But I recognize that could’ve gone a little sideways for me if they decided to start attacking me. I’m grateful that they stepped up and acknowledged that they didn’t dig as far as they should have. But that doesn’t mean that’s how every news outlet would’ve reacted.

This was the first time I’ve done something like this, but the time called for it. I don’t think this is something you could do regularly, otherwise it would get old.


Edmonton, Alberta Chief Dale McFee

In our recent PERF communication, Chief Dale McFee outlined how the Edmonton Police Service is looking to partner with other agencies on implementing police reform. We asked him to provide more detail:

A new vision for EPS

In 2019, the Edmonton Police Commission (EPC) had a vision to change the direction of policing in Edmonton. After meeting with stakeholders and members of the community, the EPC realized traditional policing must change.

With this mandate clearly identified, the Edmonton Police Service used the available data and strong minds within the Service to determine what could be improved and what needed to be protected, but it was imperative that community safety and well-being remained at the centre of any response.

The data quickly uncovered the need for balance, and the first challenge was calls for service. There was a disproportionate number of calls impacting our vulnerable population, often driven by mental health and addiction, trauma, or homelessness (among others). We realized that we had to begin looking at these calls differently, and partnering with other agencies would be central to getting marginalized clients the help they need—policing alone can’t address the full scope of the issue.

The second challenge was understanding that a very small proportion of offenders are responsible for over 50 per cent of recontact with the justice system. We must make sure we are diverting our vulnerable population away from the justice system while ensuring those offenders who need to be in the system remain there—balancing support and enforcement.

With these two challenges in mind, we began to look at how we could redistribute both our human and financial resources. Organizational restructuring, known internally as Vision 2020, started in late 2019. We began building off-ramps for Edmonton’s vulnerable citizens to move away from the criminal justice system and toward community supports, allowing us room to focus enforcement efforts on the prolific and violent offenders who truly belong behind bars.

The creation of our new Community Safety and Well-being Bureau earlier this year has already given us a head start on off-ramping and working toward demand reduction through initiatives such as our Human-centered Engagement and Liaison Partnership (HELP) and our pre-existing Heavy Users of Service (HUoS) program. We are also seeing success in our new approach to public safety, the Community Solutions Accelerator, which merges innovation and research to solve complex and interconnected challenges such as crime, additions, homelessness and mental health.

Defunding of police & City Council Hearings

Although authority over policing in Alberta lies with the provincial government, municipal government has an important role to play in listening to and ensuring the safety and well-being of its citizens. The public hearings held by Edmonton City Council in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and responding police brutality protests brought forth many different voices, some for police and some against. At times it was difficult to listen to, but hearing from citizens solidified that – while work still needs to be done – the EPS is heading in the right direction.

Recognizing that conversations on police reform must have all partners at the table, City Council gave us the opportunity to provide input into the final draft of their motion. Having City Council, the EPS and the EPC work together to listen and respond to community needs is key in effecting lasting and impactful change.

Moving forward

It is critical we look at the entirety of policing and see where improvements can be made. On July 24, 2020, a panel of Chief McFee, Chief Peter Sloly from the Ottawa Police Service, and Tom Stamatakis from the Canadian Police Association were given the opportunity to speak to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security - Systemic Racism in Policing Services in Canada. Chief McFee’s comments are available here.

Our goal from the beginning has been to show that the system needs better integration – all agencies at all levels must work together. Successful reform needs willing partners and solution-oriented leadership. The most important part in moving forward is knowing who else is willing to partner with us to drive the right change in these challenging times. We have implemented 46 out of our own 75 recommendations and are very optimistic as to what the future might look like. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.