Months into job, SDPD Northern Division head optimistic

For the past seven months, San Diego Police Department’s Northern Division, which includes La Jolla, has had a new police captain, and he said he hopes the relationships he’s built so far on the job continue well into the future.

Capt. Mark Hanten may be new to this side of town, but he’s no newbie when it comes to policing. The 25-year San Diego Police veteran’s career has taken him from the academy in 1990 to posts in the Central, Mid-City, Southeastern, Western, and now Northern divisions within the department, as well as in the department’s SWAT and sniper units.

In each of his roles, Hanten said, he’s faced challenges that have heightened his awareness of the importance of communication between police and the communities they serve. His time in the Southeastern Division, for example, made him a witness to some brutal situations in neighborhoods considered to be more prone to violent crime. But it also taught him that even in neighborhoods where relations between police and the communities would be ripe for strain, good communication can solve a lot of problems.

That’s why, he said, he’s been so impressed with the quality and professionalism of officers in the Northern Division. “On the backdrop of what’s been going on nationally — the issues talking about law enforcement in a negative light — it’s really rewarding and exciting to see how professional these young officers are,” Hanten said.

One of the reasons he said he feels that’s the case is because San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who was promoted into the chief’s role after also serving as the Northern Division’s captain, has refused to lower recruiting standards for new officers. Hanten said that’s a mistake he’s seen in other large cities facing a shortage of officers. Not here, he said.

He also said the influx of college-educated recruits, a byproduct of a slowly recovering economy forcing college graduates to find work in areas other than the fields in which they studied, and of military veterans, has brought in more mature officers.

Hanten doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the department has its own problems, referring to a few cases in recent years of highly publicized officer misconduct. But he said that, by in large, San Diego’s police department is among the most transparent in the nation, and he hopes to build a relationship with Northern Division communities to keep that transparency and communication alive, from both directions.

One of Hanten’s chief goals is to build up community involvement in the process of deterring crime, particularly in the face of changing laws that in ways, he said, make policing more difficult.

“I go to Neighborhood Watch meetings, and I tell residents that they are the eyes and ears of the police department,” he said. “That is not just a sound bite. That is absolutely reality.”

The Northern Division is comprised of about 145 police officers. Taking out of the mix the few that are injured or otherwise unable to perform patrol duties, the dozen or so that are detectives on investigative assignments and the roughly 20 sergeants, the division is left with fewer than 100 officers available for patrol duty, in a division that covers 43 square miles and includes 250,000 of the city’s 1.3 million residents.

“I can certainly hear people saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got less than 100 patrol officers covering 24/7, covering 43 square miles — how can you possibly catch anybody?’ I like to turn that around and say, ‘No, we have 250,000 agents working for us. How does anybody ever get away?’”

Hanten said he recognizes that each community has its own concerns, and that those concerns can change from season to season and from year to year. He aims to keep his department, and the communities he serves, clued-in, so that his goal of keeping the communication lines clear can be met.

Offering as an example of how changes can affect policing, Hanten referred to the recently passed Proposition 47 — which reduced to misdemeanors, many crimes that had previously been considered felonies — and one citizen’s discussion with him about a recent string of bicycle thefts.

“The response I got was, ‘Well, there’s a perception out there by the public that the police officers don’t care about bicycle thefts.’ Well, look at where we are with laws on bicycle thefts,” he pointed out.

Under Proposition 47, the theft of a bike valued at $600, for example, is no longer considered a felony, Hanten said, meaning that penalties for even the theft of relatively expensive bikes — up to $950 — are low, misdemeanor-level penalties.

The law regarding penalties no longer acts as a deterrent to bike theft, or many other crimes that were reduced to misdemeanors, such as narcotics possession, Hanten said.

“It is incumbent on people when they recognize that to reach back to the political process,” Hanten said. “And it’s incumbent upon us to make that message clear.”

Hanten said he plans to stay in the Northern Division as long as he’s still enjoying what he’s doing.

“And I absolutely enjoy what I do,” he said.

The Northern Division police offices are at 4275 Eastgate Mall in the UTC area. Reach Captain Hanten at (858) 552-1700 or