January 18, 2021
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SPD’s interim chief talks department challenges, improvements

By: Brandon McCapes
December 25, 2020

In a recent interview with The Community Voice, Sebastopol Interim Police Chief Donald Mort laid out his perspectives on challenges facing the Sebastopol Police Department and areas the department could improve.

Mort took over for former Acting Police Chief Greg DeVore following an Aug. 18 lawsuit filed against the department by former Sebastopol Police Officer Vanessa Murphy, according to The Press Democrat. Murphy’s lawsuit alleges sexual harassment and “sex discrimination” tied to her termination. DeVore had taken over for former Chief James Conner, who retired after the Sebastopol police union issued a vote-of-no-confidence in 2019.

The City of Sebastopol has denied the allegations, and while Devore stepped down as chief, he remains on the force as a lieutenant. City Manager Larry McLaughlin told The Press Democrat that DeVore is in “good standing” with the city.

Mort declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to say that it was being handled in the courts.

Mort, who began his career in law enforcement as a BART police officer 38 years ago, has also worked for the Concord Police Department and served as chief of the Dixon Police Department.

After leaving Dixon, Mort was semi-retired working as a part-time police academy instructor for Napa Valley College before becoming the police academy coordinator until 2017. 

As interim chief, Mort has agreed to stay on until at least March, with the possibility of remaining in the position for a few months longer as the city searches for a permanent replacement for DeVore. In normal times, interim police chief employment is limited to 960 hours, however, Mort said the state waived that limitation because of the pandemic.

During his time as police chief, which mostly includes policy and administrative responsibilities, Mort is assembling a list of recommendations to be submitted to the city alongside those of an external audit conducted by Jerry Threet. Threet is the director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) of Sonoma County. IOLERO was founded in 2013 after the killing of 13-year-old Anthony Lopez by a deputy sheriff. IOLERO recently secured more funding per Measure P this November.

Among Mort’s recommendations for improving the Sebastopol Police Department are increased visibility and transparency. He said implementing neighborhood policing through a beat structure like the one he implemented in Dixon would help make Sebastopol police officers more accessible and engaged with the community.

“We divided the city into smaller pockets. Officers patrol the whole city, but within that little district, they’re the problem solver or expert on that area,” Mort said. “It’s assigning individual, geographical areas of responsibility so that neighbors and businesses in the community know who their assigned officer is. If there’s a traffic problem or a crime problem or some sort of quality-of-life issue, it was their responsibility to work with other patrol officers to make that happen.”

The department could also use app-based crime statistics and new media like Facebook better to connect with the community.

Pandemic-related factors have exacerbated existing problems for the department. For one, the economic downturn has affected city revenue streams such as sales taxes, which will make providing high-quality service while providing for new equipment and continuous training for officers more difficult.

Recruitment has also decreased, due to both the pandemic, and, Mort suggests, anti-police sentiment and legislative agendas. Mort said law enforcement insiders expect the police academy graduation rate to be half of what it was over the past five years. He also highlighted the proposed California legislation AB 89, proposed by Assembly Member Jones Sawyer earlier this month and which would require police officers to be at least 25 years of age, as another potential negative factor affecting declining recruitment. 

According to Mort, factors like this could compound recruitment problems small departments like that of Sebastopol face in competing for quality police officers.

“Pay may be better in Santa Rosa or Fairfield. We have the unique challenges of finding individuals who want to come here and become a part of this community. It’s challenging to do,” Mort said.

Reduced recruitment could also limit the department’s ability to make staffing changes in terms of diversity and inclusivity. Murphy was the only female officer in Sebastopol prior to her termination, something Mort identified as a problem, but one endemic in small departments.

“I think inclusivity is a problem in every law enforcement agency,” Mort said. “It’s not unique to Sebastopol. Every agency is looking for females and minorities, but at the same time, we’re looking to hire the best candidate we can.”

Mort said all these problems are occurring at a time when financial stability and community connectivity have eroded, pointing to the increase in homelessness in Sebastopol as an example. While Mort would love to see reallocation of funding to mental health and homeless outreach services, he emphasized that decreased public funding would make these sorts of goals more difficult.

The County of Sonoma is planning to pay the City of Sebastopol over $350,000 as part of the Sebastopol Inn project, part of which will go to fund a homeless outreach coordinator for the city.

As for the broader police reform movements sweeping the country, Mort was measured. “I don’t like the word reform, can we do better? Absolutely. Can we make some changes? Absolutely,” Mort said.