San Diego The San Diego Police Department is either resuscitating affirmative action or its promotion practices are meant to reward "team players." So thinks Sergeant Mark Sullivan, whose highest possible promotional rating of "exceptionally qualified" the department has overlooked several times in selecting lieutenants. Sullivan defines a team player as one whose loyalty is to particular leaders in the department. A "good team member," he tells me, is loyal to the department.
In early February, the sergeant vented his frustrations in a letter to Mayor Jerry Sanders. A 24-year San Diego police veteran, Sullivan has served in numerous capacities, from SWAT-team and vice-squad member to administrative and teaching roles. He has been a sergeant for 12 years and represents police officers on the city's pension board. Sullivan was not asking the mayor to promote him outright, he wrote, but to assist in arranging an appeal hearing that "will decide whether I was denied a promotion on factors other than merit." He made the request in reference to the police chief's July 6, 2004 promotions. On that day, William Lansdowne, who became police chief in August 2003, promoted five sergeants and five lieutenants. In each case, the breakdown was three white males, one Hispanic male, and one black female. For the fourth time, Sullivan was overlooked, and at least one of those promoted, he maintains, was less qualified.
Sullivan opened his letter by appealing to concerns Mayor Sanders had voiced in his January 12 "State of the City" address. "You said," wrote Sullivan, "that too often 'important problems were swept under the rug by city leaders. As best as I can tell the operating philosophy around City Hall involved one of these three words: delay, deny or deceive.' " Sullivan argued that the problems at the police department went far beyond his own case. "It is an issue of public safety," he wrote, if the police department makes a habit of advancing less-qualified personnel over the more qualified.
Sullivan went on to elaborate his situation to the mayor. In November 2002, he said, the San Diego Police Officers Association (the police union) had chosen him and several other officers with similar histories to participate in a lawsuit to make the promotional process fairer. At the time of filing, charged the lawsuit, "The promotion decisions are routinely based on a myriad of improper considerations, including personal whims, animus, relationships to candidates, group affiliations, and worse, the candidates' race, sex, color, ethnicity, age, and national origin." In May 2004, the association and police department settled the lawsuit by establishing a new merit-based promotional process.
Chief Lansdowne announced his selections for promotion two months later. Wrote Sullivan, "I truly believed that I was passed over...in retaliation for participating in the lawsuit. On July 20, 2004, I made a formal request through the Chief's office for an administrative appeal for denial of promotion on factors other than merit."
California's Police Officers Bill of Rights grants officers in Sullivan's situation the right to such an appeal. So does Article 41 of San Diego's memorandum of understanding with its police personnel. Nevertheless, wrote Sullivan, "the chief's office fought my request for administrative hearing for ten months." Finally, through the work of the Police Officers Association's attorney, the department granted a hearing "on condition that the chief would not have to answer any questions related to the qualifications or the subsequent conduct of the other candidates."
Meanwhile, during August 2004, Channel 7/39 correspondent Tony Shin did a series of reports on the Central Division's investigative team. The team's leader had failed to complete investigating 900-plus criminal cases assigned to her division. It turned out, reported Shin, that the department had recently promoted the officer in question to lieutenant. On a day shortly after her promotion, she came back to Central Division to reclassify 160 of the late cases as "No Contact Required." That action precluded any subsequent investigation into the cases, a number of which were serious felony cases.
Shin later won a News Emmy for his reports. By phone, he tells me that his investigation relied largely on anonymous conversations with several officers who witnessed the former team leader reclassifying the cases after her promotion. "The officers were appalled at what they perceived as a clear cover-up," says Shin. On the video of his reports, I watch Shin stand first with Chief Lansdowne, then with executive assistant chief William Maheu, and ask them what the department planned to do about the incident. Maheu attempts to downplay its significance, arguing that most of the cases had already been finished and needed only official sign-offs. But Lansdowne acknowledges that improprieties may have occurred and promises to conduct an investigation whose results he will announce at a later news conference. "The news conference never happened," Shin tells me.
On May 26, 2005, Mark Sullivan went to the police chief's office for the start of his administrative hearing. The hearing officer was deputy city manager Bruce Herring. (Herring was later named in the Kroll report as having breached fiduciary responsibilities in the city's recent pension crisis.) "None of the discovery information requested by my counsel was produced, including my own promotional file," Sullivan wrote Sanders. "Chief William Lansdowne was the first witness to be interviewed."
The sergeant and his attorney learned the following. First, a committee of the police department's assistant chiefs, not the police chief's promotions board, made the choices during the July 6, 2004 selection process. Second, all the assistant chiefs that day had pictures of each candidate for promotion (there were 63). Third, the selection began with each assistant chief choosing his top five candidates, winnowing the group down from there. Fourth, the assistant chiefs made their selections on minimal merit-based information about the candidates.
In both the promotions to sergeant and to lieutenant, three white males, one Hispanic male, and one black female were selected. Lansdowne denied that any formal or informal "promotional formula" was used. "The fact that two dissimilar candidate pools could yield the same promotional results regarding race and gender," says Sullivan, "was just coincidental, according to the chief of police."