‘Without trust nothing else matters,’ San Diego’s next police chief shares his priorities

Staffing shortages, homelessness crisis key issues for Scott Wahl
Posted at 6:11 PM, Apr 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-02 21:11:31-04

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Scott Wahl has policing in his blood. His dad was a narcotics detective with the very police department he’s now been tapped to lead.
“I can remember my dad trying to talk me out of being a police officer and it wasn't that he was trying to keep me from trying to help others or serve my community. I think he was mostly concerned about what this job can do to you mentally, physically, and emotionally.”

Wahl, a 25-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, is about to embark on perhaps the hardest job on the force – serving as police chief.

Mayor Todd Gloria has appointed Wahl to replace Chief David Nisleit, who is retiring in June.

Wahl, who is a current assistant chief, sat down with ABC 10 News investigative reporter Austin Grabish to share his priorities as the city’s next top cop. He said the job is about building relationships.

“We all have the same thing in common. We want a safe San Diego.”

He said his top priority is establishing trust. “Without trust, nothing else matters.”

But how will he do it? Wahl told Grabish it comes down to being honest and transparent with people. “You gotta tell them the truth, even when it's hard to do.”

Grabish asked Wahl how he plans to rebuild trust in communities of color.

“I think it comes down to giving people a voice, a chance to have their voices be heard, not from a position of arguing from my side or from some other viewpoint but listening and understanding where people are coming from,” Wahl said.

A key problem Wahl hopes he can improve is staffing shortages within the police department. Officers often leave the force to work for nearby cities that pay better.

He said his master’s degree in organization leadership has helped him learn to lead like a sports coach.

“My focus is building something special here that people want to be a part of. The San Diego Police Department has the greatest job variety, bar none, with all of the planned retirements that are coming up, your chance of upward mobility is gonna be better than ever.”

Scott Wahl is seen here with his dad, who spent his career working for the San Diego Police Department.

The San Diego native said the most rewarding assignment in his career so far was serving as captain of the Neighborhood Policing Division. The unit, focused on homelessness, is one he started from scratch.

Asked if police are intervening enough, he said he is going to look at the resources being applied to the homeless crisis.

“When I was the captain, we had more resources over there and we were able to get year over year reductions based on the point and time count from 2018 through 2020. I want to get back to those years of those reductions.”

Grabish asked Wahl if he feels the police department’s hands are tied with the issue.

Prop 47 for example changed certain crimes like shoplifting under $950 from potential felonies to misdemeanors. It’s meant that in many stores in San Diego, thieves now walk out without paying. It’s not uncommon for downtown residents to see homeless people smoke drugs on city streets and act erratically.

“Certainly, it's a very complicated equation. But the police department absolutely has a role. It comes down to accountability. Our job is to hold people accountable. I wanna make sure that we're doing it in a very fair and balanced, unbiased way,” Wahl said.