By Miriam Raftery
Photo by Leon Thompson
In an exclusive interview, San Diego's new top law enforcement offer shares his goals with East County Magazine--including priorities and new initiatives for East County.
Appointed to replace retiring Sheriff William Kolender, Bill Gore brings 42 years of law enforcement expertise to the job. As Assistant Director of the FBI in Washington D.C., he earned a Meritorious Executive Service Award from the President. He’s led efforts to bring down organized crime rings including the Triads and Yakuza, helped break up the infamous Arellano-Felix Drug Cartel, and intervened to halt airplane hijackings as a S.W.A.T. team member. (Read his harrowing account here.) In San Diego, he established the Joint Terrorism Task Force and developed the nation’s first regional computer forensic lab—which has since been replicated nationwide. After leaving the FBI, he served as Chief Investigator/Special Assistant to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. As Undersheriff, second in command under Sheriff Kolender, he revised use-of-force policies, implemented a mobile ID system and improved public transparency.
Now as Sheriff, he’s set his sights on his most ambitious goal yet: to make San Diego the safest urban county in America.
Q: What are your priorities as the new Sheriff?
A: I was very fortunate and blessed that as Under Sheriff for many years, Sheriff Kolendar gave me a lot of leeway. I’m proud of many things we’ve already accomplished…I interviewed with the Board of Supervisors and gave written testimony. When I testified, I made clear of my goal: make San Diego the safest urban county in the U.S.
Q: How will you accomplish that, especially given current budget constraints?
A: In good times, that would be a challenge, and it’s especially difficult in these difficult financial times. First, We need to take full advantage and make sure we’re on the cutting edge of technology to make us as efficient and effective as we can be, and to go aggressively go after federal grants. The last thing is we are strengthening relationships with state, federal and local law enforcement agencies, and tribes. We have one of the best relationships in the state with tribal law enforcement. We can’t afford to duplicate efforts. There are a lot of overlapping jurisdictions. Now, everything major is done through task forces. We have task forces on kidnapping, terrorism, and gangs. We have an East County gang task force—it includes the FBI, ATM, and probation officials.
Q: Would the DNA Rapid Response Team you helped establish here be an example of using technology more effectively?
A: You’ve done your research! Our DNA lab is one of the best in the state. Not all propositions are good, but Prop 69 has allowed us to take DNA specimens from people who are arrested and convicted of certain crimes, more each year. Starting in 2009, we can take DNA from anybody arrested for a felony…Back in 2004, what we did was we pulled in the Sheriff, police department, judges, all the stakeholders. It was a massive undertaking to come up with a plan to take DNA samples from parolees, prisoners in jails. We paid for it by adding money to fines.
Q: Are you getting a lot of positive results?
A: It’s been great. In 2004, we had over 250,000 in the database of known DNA. It’s grown to over 1 million specimens—the third largest DNA database in the world, after Great Britain and the FBI. In addition to more samples, the technology is improving so we can get DNA from smaller samples…Now we can get contact DNA from a fingerprint. We’re taking more photographs of fingerprints so we don’t destroy prints with dusting powder. It’s also faster. It used to take one month back when I was in the FBI. Now it’s 24 hours. We have two labs, San Diego Police Department and our regional lab. In 2004, we had 19 hits. By 2005, 40 hits. This year we are on target to go over 300 hits. These are crimes that wouldn’t be solved otherwise. These are not rapes or murders, by and large. These are property crimes, burglaries and car thefts. Another great stat—we are getting hits on over 53% of unknown DNA samples that we send to Sacramento.
Q: Do you have enough staffing for this?
A: As we train our deputies in better crime scene techniques, we’re become victims of our own success! We’ve told the Supervisors that we need to hire 10 DNA criminalists in the field, with a goal of 15 days to get results. We had 8 of the 10 on board, then the budget crunch hit.
Q: How else are you using technology to be more efficient?
A: Another way of using technology is TKO, the knock out in boxing. Here it means tracking known offenders, those on parole and probation, in a digitized database. We now have digitized mapping capabilities to see crimes in a neighborhood, then check to see if anyone with a record of committing those types of crimes lives nearby [or if they’re being tracked with GPS, whether an offender was in the vicinity].
Q: What are the most serious issues for East County?
A: A lot of crime is related to our U.S.-Mexico border. As we built the fence, we moved problems further east. The Border Patrol has a greater presence and now we will, too. Our response time should be better…Having a 24-hour routine patrol effort will be an asset. This year, we started out with $25 million less than last year due to the drop in property and sales tax. But even with downsizing, we have more patrol deputies on the streets of San Diego and the backcountry.
Q: What are you doing to combat border violence?
A: There’s a national story every night on border violence. There were 800 homicides in Tijuana last year and 1,700 in the Juarez border area. Though certain crimes have increased here, the large number of homicides in Mexico has not spilled over, but drug dealers are going through here and crossing the border. Kidnappings have increased. Primarily these are people who live here but have business or relatives south of the border, so they are kidnapped in Mexico and families here get extorted…There were 45 kidnappings in the last 2 years.
For border crimes, we’ve gone after federal grants. We’ve received $23 million in the last two yearsa through Stonegate (Homeland Security) and the Southwest Border Grant program. In rural East County, there historically has not been a lot of law enforcement out here. It’s been an under-served area regarding border crimes. This has allowed us to put greater law enforcement there. The first grant covered overtime and equipment. The second will fund 14 deputy sheriffs to address these border crimes countywide, with a focus in rural East County.
Q: How well is that working out?
A: In the past, our deputies have worked these rural departments from their homes…Now we’ll have a 24/7 presence. When we stop people at 2 a.m. they say, “You’re not supposed to be out here!” We’re finding inner city gang bangers out there…We are the third largest law enforcement agency in California. Now, with more deputies on the beat, If someone in the backcountry is taking pictures of water pumps, we now have the capability to integrate that into the big picture and have it analyzed in Washington D.C. There may be a fit with something the NSA or CIA has found overseas. Before, we were trying to put the puzzle together without the box top.
Q: What do you think about Mexico’s decriminalization of drug possession?
A: It gives me a lot of concern. I’m very disappointed. So many of our law enforcement and military have died going after these drugs…To me it’s a disconnect. Though I’ve got to give Mexico’s President Calderon credit for going after the drug cartels….When we took out the Arellano-FelixCartel, we created a vacuum. Now there are killings to see who will be in charge.
Q: Hate crimes appear to be on the rise in our region. What is your office doing to reduce and combat hate crimes?
A: The numbers are not large. There is a hate crimes coalition, but no investigative task force. We’ve had some successful prosecutions of hate crimes in East County, though whether or not to classify a crime as a hate crime is the District Attorney’s decision. On October 1, we will be participating in a Hate Crimes Summit.
Q: What is your view on the Minutemen? Are border vigilante groups a help or a hindrance to your department, or both?
A: This was an issue when I first came on board and the pro-immigration movement was also strong, and there was provocation on both sides. My policy was you each have a right to be here under the First Amendment. We’re here to enforce each of your rights, as long as you don’t take things into your own hands.
Q: How will state budget cuts and the federal court order to release state prisoners impact San Diego—and what are your views on furloughing prisoners?
A: The State Assembly and Senate bills are miles apart on this…But there’s the federal order to release 40,000 prisoners over the next two years. The State is appealing to the Supreme Court and I hope that will be successful. The travesty in this situation is that we got to this point. Our crime rate in San Diego is the lowest it’s been in 25 years. We put a lot of people in prisoner. About 8% of the people do 90% of the crime, but what the Legislature failed to do was to say look, if we’re going to be tough on crime, we’ve got to build more jails. Our state prisons were built to hold 90,000, but the system has 170,000 prisoners…My concern is there will be a new cap on the state prison system. That means for every prisoner I send to state prison, somebody’s got to come out. We send 200 prisoners a week to state prison, so within a week I’ll be over my capacity. This really puts the monkey on the sheriffs’ backs…
Q: What alternatives are you looking at if that occurs?
A: GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) tracking, early release, more electronic monitoring, we’re studying it all now. We’re trying to build a new facility and increase Las Colinas Women’s Prison from 800 to 1,200 beds. WE also have plans to take another 1,000 beds for men in Otay Mesa. That facility is run now by Corrections Corporation of America, a private contractor that runs it for the feds and it’s used for federal prisoners. They are renting the use, but it’s on County land and we will take it back in 2014 or 2015 for local jail facilities….
Q: There is considerable community opposition in Santee to the expansion of the Las Colinas Women’s detention center. Do you support the expansion, or is there a better location?
A: That is our primary female booking facility. We own the land, and there is currently a jail there so it’s not a new use. A booking facility has to be centrally located. There’s been talk of Campo but you can’t take a deputy off the beat for four hours to drive a prisoner all the way to Campo. Same thing with Otay. The jail also needs to be near rehabilitation and education services and close enough for visitation, as well as close to public transportation. Campo and Otay don’t meet those requirements.
Q: What about public safety? Have there been many escapes of prisoners over the years from Las Colinas?
A: Not a single one. We have listened to the community, however, and we’ve made some changes [to plans for the new facilitiy]. We moved the facility back off Magnolia, it will be a low-rise, and it will be landscaped. I think it will fit in better than the existing community. We’re trying to be as good of neighbors as we can, but we need to build a new women’s detention facility. The Grand Jury has ordered the County to do so.
Q: You were a leader in taking steps to reduce officer-related shootings here by implementing use of non-lethal weapons, such as tasers and pepper spray. How well has that worked?
A: We’ve had one officer-related shooting in two years now. There used to be eight or nine a year. I’m very gratified with what we’ve done. In 2005, there were three shootings in five days in Vista, all separate incidents. To take that and turned it into a learning experience was priceless. I convinced the Sheriff that nothing short of an independent review would work, a top to bottom review…We revamped our critical incident review process. …We have implemented 37 of the 39 recommendations. We also established an Office of Inspectional Services, an internal watchdog organization. I grew up with that sort of thing in the F.B.I., and recommended it here.
Q: Crowd control has been in the news with the Francine Busby pepper spray incident. Now some have expressed concern after spotting long-range acoustical devices (LRADs) at Congressional members Susan Davis and Darrell Issa town hall forums on healthcare. We understand these devices can be used as loudspeakers, to avoid need for a helicopter to address large crowds—
A: That’s not the primary purpose.
Q: They’re also called sonic cannons, capable of directing a deterrent sound. They’ve been used in IRAQ on insurgents and to repel pirates.
A: That’s a precaution in case you need it.
Q: LRADs can cause permanent hearing loss and other health problems. What make and model LRAD do you have, what are the guidelines for when these may be used, what training is provided, and how can you assure that your deputies and innocent bystanders won’t be hurt?
A: Our deputies have required training.
(Public information officer Jan Caldwell informed us that our remaining questions will be answered within 10 days in a written request for information that East County Magazine has submitted.)
Q: Enforcement efforts targeting medical marijuana dispensaries and medical marijuana patients have raised controversy in East County. We’ve also heard testimony to the Supervisors claiming raids have targeted sick people and even knocked over people in walkers. Will you continue your predecessors’ policies, and given the lean budget times, how big a priority will targeting medical marijuana be in your Department?
A: It’s a very problematic area. It’s very controversial. I wish instead of passing a medical marijuana law, which is being abused, they should have a debate on legalizing it…If a person has serious medical problems, cancer or glaucoma, that’s one thing. But not stress or sleep problems. In our investigation, we’re finding people using this are 18-30….Now the County is issuing medical marijuana cards, but the issue of dispensaries is still problematic. The law says they can’t make money. They can be a coop, or a nonprofit…Do we have a lot of resources dedicated to this? The answer is no.
Q: You have helped to implement FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) and established our region’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. How serious a concern is terrorism?
A: This is as question we’ve addressed obviously since 911. You could say we’re safer because we have a lot of military assets; I don’t see us as a high risk target, never have, but there are no guarantees…But we have the best coordinated law enforcement in the U.S. We formed a Joint Terorrism Task Force in 1999 and continued to expand ; this could be a whole separate story. N ow we have our Law Enforcement Coordination Center combined with our Joint Terrorism Task Force in the same building…Whether our increased vigilance has thwarted a terrorist attack, we may never know…But the fact that there has been no attacks on U.S. soil since 911 is a real testament to U.S. law enforcement.
Q: You helped write and implement the FISA laws. What is your opinion about the controversy over the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps to bypass the FISA court?
A: I’ve thought about this a lot. FISA was passed in 1978, based on abuses by the intelligence community. They created the FISA Court to hear these cases and it gave those doing operations a legal structure…but they couldn’t anticipate the type of technology we would have. They’ve been trying to adapt…There’s always a reluctance to amend a law in Congress because it might end up worse than what you started with. After 911, a lot of people criticized the Patriot Act, and changes were made to FISA. To do a wiretap, you used to have to have all the evidence in court in 24 hours. Now it’s 48 to 72 hours. FISA gave us a lot of power on the terrorism side that we used to have on the organized crime side. There is NO requirement for a warrant on overseas surveillance. But if a known terrorist in the Middle East is talking to a guy in New Jersey, you can’t listen. So they [Bush administration officials] made a decision to listen anyway.
Q: Was that an acceptable intelligence action or an abuse of power, in your view?
A: They could have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they had gone to the FISA court and said `Here’s our problem.’…These are calls that could save thousands of lives. Let us intercept these calls and let you , the court, review them.”
Q: What about domestic surveillance without warrants—say if they were listening to a reporter?
A: A judge could order the surveillance destroyed, but you’d have judicial oversight. That would be the intelligent way to handle that and the public would have confidence.
Q: You’ve called for more citizen involvement to prevent crime. What community outreach has your office done, or do you plan to do?
A: What I believe is important, and we’re doing a great job, is to be as transparent as we possibly can. On our website we probably have more statistics on the use of force than any other site in the state, while respecting privacy rights…Every station now has a community advisory committee. We run Sheriff’s citizens academies, a 15-20 hour course to familiarize people…I’m a firm believer that the more people know about what we do, the more they support it. The name of the game is getting more information to solve crimes and keep our community safe.”