The phrase “like father, like son” couldn’t be more accurate for describing San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, who took time to introduce himself to the Point Loma Rotary Club on Friday, April 12 at the San Diego Yacht Club. Nisleit’s father, Randy, was a lieutenant when Nisleit first joined the force. And now that he’s Police Chief, Nisleit’s son, Ryan, has also joined the police department (despite Nisleit’s initial knee-jerk response of “no!” which his wife talked him out of, he said).
Nisleit began by providing background on his time with the SDPD, which included six years on patrol, 12 years as an officer and sergeant in the SWAT unit, and six years leading the sniper unit. He was sworn in as the department’s 35th Police Chief on Feb. 27, 2018 following the retirement of former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
He followed his introduction with some facts for the Rotarians: San Diego was one of the safest large cities in the United States for 2017 and 2018, based on violent crime. And, ironically, San Diego’s neighbor Tijuana was last year’s most dangerous city with over 2,500 homicides in 2018.
Nisleit opened the floor to questions early on.
One Rotarian wanted to know why Nisleit thinks San Diego is such a safe place to live. Nisleit replied that in addition to a great relationship with state officials and other local law enforcement departments, SDPD enjoys a solid relationship with its federal partners. SDPD is a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, led locally by SDPD Lt. Ryan Hallahan.
Nisleit stated that nationally, the average homicide solvability rate is about 60 percent, while the average for San Diego is 84 percent, even reaching 94 percent in 2018. “You commit a homicide in this City, most likely you’re going to get caught,” said Nisleit.
However, there is a new trend in homicides, Nisleit shared: murders in San Diego are taking place among friends and family — they aren’t necessarily random acts of violence. There were 35 homicides in 2018, and 35 in 2017, he said.
The hottest topic of the afternoon came up when another Rotarian asked the Chief his views regarding Assembly Bill 392 and Senate Bill 230, addressing police conduct.
AB 392 was introduced in an attempt to “redefine the circumstances under which a homicide by a peace officer is deemed justifiable to include when the killing is in self-defense or the defense of another, consistent with the existing legal standard for self-defense.” The bill would additionally “bar the use of this defense if the peace officer acted in a criminally negligent manner that caused the death,” as stated on California Legislative Information website. AB 392 can be found at bit.ly/2vxC2lN
Nisleit expressed that while he truly understands the motivation behind the bill’s proposal, he has some concerns about the bill making changes to a Supreme Court standard decided in the 1989 Graham v. Connor case. That standard says officers may use force when it’s reasonable, based on what officers know at the time and their training.
He referenced the 2015 incident when Lamontez Jones, who had at the time just served two-and-a-half years for murder, pointed a fake replica Desert Eagle firearm at two officers, who then fatally shot him. Nisleit was at the scene, he said. Under AB 392, those police officers would have been charged with manslaughter.
Nisleit opined that it’s hard enough to get people to join the police force, so “Why is anybody going to want to do this job and risk their lives, for fear that the gun that was just pointed at them was a toy?” he posed. “Understand that officers make split-second decisions a lot of times in low-light, high-stress (situations) where hindsight is not available.”
SB 230 would require each law enforcement agency to maintain a policy that provides guidelines on the use of force, using de-escalation techniques and other alternatives to force when feasible, specific guidelines for the application of deadly force, and factors for evaluating and reviewing all use of force incidents, among other things. The bill would require each agency to make their use of force policy accessible to the public. SB 230 can be found at bit.ly/2LJl0wd
“I’ve been doing this 31 years,” Nisleit said. “I have never used my firearm in the line of duty, and I’ve been fired on, been sniped at — when I was an officer in Logan Heights, multiple times. And I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never used my firearm.”
The question of marijuana legalization and the resulting effects was posed, but Nisleit said it’s too early to be sure. Much of the marijuana marketing is geared toward young people, he said, so “we’re (maybe) creating a whole new grouping of people who are going to be using drugs.” Conflicting reports on whether marijuana is a gateway drug have, for now, split the verdict down the middle.
Colorado and Washington have seen an increase in traffic fatalities since legalizing marijuana as people have been driving impaired. San Diego’s fatalities and traffic collisions have risen, too, but Nisleit said he can’t yet corrolate the increase with marijuana use.
In regards to immigration, Nisleit stated that for the past 20 years, SDPD has not been asking people about their immigration status. “My concern is this: You’re in this country, you’re the victim of a crime or witness to a crime, I don’t want you to be afraid to come forward and talk to an officer.” SB 54, which went into affect in 2017, prohibits police from having a relationship with federal partners that handle immigration. The bill essentially changed nothing for the SDPD, Nisleit observed, because it was already following those guidelines.
The topic of 5G and smart cities sparked a conversation about how technology could potentially play a role in improving the plight of those who are homeless. Nisleit said while he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the housing-driven method for solving homelessness, he believes the two driving forces behind homelessness are addiction and mental health. “Until we get a grasp on that, this will always be an issue,” he said.
In addition to the Neighborhood Policing Division he formed during his first week as Chief, Nisleit said he also doubled the Homeless Outreach Teams. “My personal opinion is, as human beings, we owe these people some kind of compassion to try to get them out of this lifestyle.”
The final question applied to everyone in the room: As citizens of the United States, what are the parameters of what we’re allowed to do to protect ourselves?
Nisleit explained that, like the police, citizens may protect themselves with force that is reasonable to overcome the resistance they are facing. However, he added that if possible, he would rather citizens call the police before attempting to handle altercations themselves.
“Just so everybody understands, you don’t have a right to protect your property with deadly force. Property is never going to trump life,” he said. The exception would be if someone breaks into your house and poses a threat to you or your family.
Before Nisleit made his exit, one Rotarian stood to extend an invitation to Ride the Point, a cycling event (Nov. 9) that raises money for pancreatic cancer research. “I do have to say that Chief Zimmerman rode with us all the years she was here,” the Rotarian teased.
Nisleit joked back that there are “cyclists and there’s bicyclists,” explaining that he competed as a cyclist for years, until a shoulder injury slowed him down.
One audience member tossed out a comparison between Nisleit and his family and the television series “Blue Bloods,” asking if Nisleit has dinner with his loved ones like the characters in the show. Nisleit responded that he and his wife try to have dinner with their kids and his father every Sunday, but it probably happens about twice a month. “We were all over at the house last Sunday,” he said. “We don’t talk shop though. I generally don’t get a day off, and if I do, it’s maybe half a Sunday, so the last thing I want to do is talk about police work.”
Chief Nisleit can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or the non-emergency number (619) 531-2000.
—The next Point Loma Rotary meeting is 12:10 p.m., Friday, May 17 at the San Diego Yacht Club, 1011 Anchorage Lane. pointlomarotary.org