San Diego's Top Cop
By Ron Donoho
(page 1 of 3)David Bejarano, San Diego’s first Latino chief of police, was sworn in last April. The 43-year-old native of El Paso faced extreme public scrutiny from the start: a controversy involving Mayor Susan Golding’s perceived influence in his selection process. That incident segued into a lawsuit by Assistant Chief Rulette Armstead, another candidate for chief. The department’s top-ranking African-American called the selection process “corrupt.”
Armstead subsequently dropped her $3 million lawsuit against the city. Though it’s easy to imagine the air hasn’t cleared in the police department’s downtown offices, Armstead insists there’s no bad blood.
“There may have been a perception the air was not clear, but I’ve made it known there was never a problem with him and me,” says Armstead. “He’s been very fair with me. He allows me to run my own ship, and he lets us try to be innovative in how we do our jobs.”
Bejarano has faced the media’s unforgiving glare in at least two other instances in his first year. There was the ill-received proposal not to have cops investigate every routine home burglary. The chief takes the blame for that proposal becoming public, but claims the message was wildly mangled.
And there was the shooting death by two police officers of former football star Demetrius Dubose.
“The chief handled that situation as well as possible and without causing race riots,” says San Diego Urban League president and CEO John Johnson. “He was very clear and very open in giving answers to the community.”
Johnson gives Bejarano an overall positive grade. “He reaches out,” says Johnson. “We’re in good hands. But I’m not happy about the levels of diversity, especially at the rookie level. That’s something he needs to work on. The police department is a microcosm of society. And I think there is a level of racial discrimination within this department that he will have to overcome.”
So just who is the man who’s got so much on his plate? Bejarano grew up in a low-income, minority community. El Paso sits across the border from Juárez, Mexico, and the similarities between that area and the San Diego–Tijuana region are many.
Bejarano says his family was close-knit. He describes his childhood as one focused on strict Catholicism and education. Both of his parents worked to provide for their five children. Bejarano has four sisters—three older and one younger—who still live in El Paso.
Athletics—football, baseball and wrestling—kept Bejarano out of gangs. Intending to register at the University of Texas at El Paso, he changed his mind at the last minute and joined the Marines. Boot camp was in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the woman he’d fallen in love with, Esperanza, was back in El Paso. The distance between the couple became greater when her family moved to San Diego.
The cross-country relationship solidified when Bejarano moved to San Diego in 1978. Today, David and Esperanza have three children: Marissa, 20, a junior at the University of San Diego; Yvonne, 19, a sophomore at USD; and Michael, a freshman at Bonita Vista High School.
Bejarano had been driven toward law enforcement since childhood. His parents taught respect for all public-safety personnel. But it’s partly by happenstance he became a police officer. He took the exams to be a cop and a firefighter. SDPD was the first to call him back.
Senior public information officer Bill Robinson, who has worked for SDPD since 1975, says Bejarano is the first to enter the chief’s office with so many large-scale accomplishments under his belt—head of security for the 1996 GOP National Convention and the 1998 Super Bowl; the Border Crime Prevention Unit.
“The first thing you notice with Dave is his accomplishments as an officer,” says Robinson. “Then his devotion to his family, and his interest in making institutional changes here. As a former Marine, he’s brought with him what they teach in boot camp: Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.
“He’s low-key. He’s a doer rather than a talker. When you hear Dave talk, he’s firm. But people who know him praise his sensitivity. He’s the first person there whenever there’s a death or an injury.”
Each year, the 2,000-member police department makes 6,000 arrests, does 200,000 traffic stops and gets a million calls for service. Without too great a risk of interrupting public service, we asked the chief to take a break from his duties and assess his first year as San Diego’s top cop.