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East County News Service

Photo: Captain Matt Nicholass, tomorrow's Interim Chief of Police (left), and soon to be former Chief of Police Walt Vasquez (right). Chopper the Biker Dog, law enforcement mascott wishes Chief Vasquez "all the very best on his retirement during his 'final walk-out."  Photo courtesy of Facebook, Chopper the Biker Dog

August 27, 2020 (La Mesa) - The City of La Mesa plans to hire an executive recruiting firm to conduct a nationwide search for its next Chief of Police, according to a  new release earlier today from the City of La Mesa.

There will be a community input component to the selection process. The process is expected to take several months to complete. Once the recruiting firm is hired additional details will be released.

Captain Matt Nicholass will assume the role of Acting Chief of Police tomorrow, August 28, 2020.

Vasquez began his law enforcement career in 1986 with the San Diego Police Department, rising to the rank of assistant chief before being sworn in as La Mesa’s 11th chief of police in April 2015.

“Over the past five years, our team has worked very hard to keep the citizens of La Mesa safe,” he said in a statement upon announcing his retirement during a town hall meeting, which came a

s a surprise to some councilmembers who were not previously informed. “The decrease in property and violent crimes in the City from 2015 to 2019 has been the largest decrease of all incorporated cities in San Diego County.” 

The department has faced controversy in recent months, however over several incidents including handling of a racial justice protest at the La Mesa Police station May 30 that erupted into violence.  After some protesters threw rocks and bottles at police, police declared an unlawful assembly and fired tear gas, pepper spray and bean bag projectiles at protesters, seriously injuring Leslie Furcron, who was struck in the head. Looting, rioting, and the burning down of two banks and a historic building occurred later that night.

Days before the protest, which was part of nationwide demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a controversial stop of Amaurie Johnson, a young Black man, by a white LMPD officer, was partially caught on a video that went viral amid accusations of racial profiling.  The officer claimed Johnson assaulted him, but the charge was dropped after body cam footage failed to back up the officer's version of the incident. The officer has since left the force.

Two years earlier, a white LMPD school resource officer was shown on video knocking a handcuffed black teen girl to the ground at Helix Charter High School. The city later settled a lawsuit filed by the teen, though an investigation found the officer did not violate police procedures.  He was also moved out of serving in schools.

In an interview with ECM days after the protest and riot, Chief Vasquez stated that his concern that night was for "the safety of our officers and the safety of the city and our staff.”ECM asked what more the La Mesa Police Department plans to do to try and heal racial relations in the community and assuage anger by some over perceived racial injustice.“That is definitely part of the healing process, without a doubt,” Chief Vasquez replied. “The outreach is already starting. I’ve had people reaching out to me. The police and Sheriff are already talking about this,” he promised. “As we progress through this and start that healing, those kinds of outreach and changes will happen,without a doubt."

At subsequent protests, Chief Vasquez met with protest organizers and was even seen embracing Black members of the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club. A counter-protester was arrested for battery of a protester.  But some protesters and residents contended that police turned a blind eye to actions of some who contended that they came to defend La Mesa from protesters, brandishing weapons including knives, pepper spray and tasers.  

Departure of Chief Vasquez presents an opportunity for the city to select a Chief who can expand efforts to heal the racial divide while also assuring protection for all La Mesa residents and businesses.