To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange year and a half it’s been. When LAPD Wilshire Division Captain Shannon Paulson came to her post in February, 2020, she had great optimism for her new position, and especially the community and staff engagement she was looking forward to building. And then, just three weeks later, COVID-19 shut down the world. And just two and half months after that, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and the resulting protests shut down much of LA in a whole other way. So, in other words, says Paulson, who will now be moving on to a new post in August, “It’s been a creative challenge, given the restrictions.”
We got a chance to chat with Paulson recently, and spoke to her about her time at Wilshire Division, the events of the past year, and what’s next for her.
Wilshire Division Crime
Paulson says her main focus at Wilshire Division, despite everything else that has been going on in the world over the last 18 months, has always been crime — especially the two biggest and most stubbornly ongoing issues in the area: car thefts and robberies, both of which have generally been up this year compared to the same period last year.
“We continue to have cars that drive away without their owners,” Paulson told us. And while the police are working hard to fight the problem, she said, they also remain frustrated that people leave keys and key fobs in their cars, or leave cars running too often, making vehicle thefts easier for those who commit them. Paulson says the division has both daily and weekly goals for crime reduction, and that they’ve been trying, with some success recently, to chip away at the numbers. She also notes that many vehicle thefts and robberies in the area have been committed by specific groups of people, and some of those individuals are now in custody, which may help. Finally, the division is also focusing on trends and patterns in crimes, and helping teach neighbors how to “harden the target,” so the criminals will move elsewhere.
George Floyd Protests
The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the only surprise thrown at Paulson during her time at Wilshire. In fact, “expect the unexpected” might be a good motto for Paulson’s whole career. Or maybe she just has some sort of impeccable timing. For example, she graduated from the police academy on a Friday in April, 1992. Her first day as an LAPD officer was Sunday, April 26. And then, just three days later, the verdicts were delivered in the Rodney King police trial, and riots broke out on April 29. Fast forward almost 30 years, and she comes to Wilshire Division in February, 2020, and in May, after the George Floyd killing, LA sees the worst outbreak of violence since Rodney King. “Never in my wildest imagination would I have ever thought that I would experience two of those,” Paulson said.
But as Paulson also told us, there’s a “big difference between a “four-day wonder” and a 30-year veteran,” and while the George Floyd protests, and the large bouts of looting and violence that followed, especially during the last weekend of May last year, were horrific, they also prompted some deep reflection. And Paulson says there is “no doubt” she will spend the rest of her career thinking about what happened over those days, and using insights gained to inform her work in the future. “We will as a department analyze what can be done differently. I as an individual spent hours wondering what could have been done better.”
For example, to some extent, during the incident, Paulson said, “a crowd of 5,000 people will do what it wants to do. Even a few hundred people in a crowd of 5,000 people.” But she believes that even given that context, the police did the best they could to protect both citizens and members of the police force who were attacked in the melees.
“It’s times like that as a leader…we really see what people we work with are made of,” she said. In fact, her staff worked 16 hour days for weeks during the weeks that followed the initial violence. There was more than $136 million in damage and loss in Wilshire Division, and all of it had to be investigated – along with the usual criminal activity, “skirmish patrol,” and more. And Wilshire Division officers came through, with detectives beginning to make arrests within 12 hours of some incidents. “That kind of dedication and work ethic is astounding,” she says. “I can’t say enough about the officers that work here.”
But Paulson is also quick to note that she does not label every demonstrator as a rioter, and that there were many fully peaceful protests during that time as well. It was only an “element” of the crowd that ruined things, she said.
At the same time, however, Paulson says there is also a lot of “misinformation and misperception” about how the police handled things during the protests and riots, especially at the areas near Third Street and Fairfax Ave., and Beverly and Fairfax, on Sunday May 30. For example, she said, security camera footage from the area shows some successful apprehensions of looters, and a critical incident debrief, with lots of other information, video footage, and more, is available on the LAPD website.
Paulson told us that her very first command position was as a patrol captain, so she didn’t have the opportunity to form a Community Police Advisory Board or do other kinds of community outreach that she would have liked to do. And then she worked for the Security Services Division of LAPD, which also didn’t have much community engagement.
So she said she was really looking forward to the opportunities her job as Wilshire Division captain would provide to engage more with the community. But then COVID-19 hit just three weeks after she arrived, and she only got to conduct one in-person roundtable discussion with community members before everything shut down.
But then, she said, came one bright spot — Zoom — which in many cases made it easier than ever before for people to attend community meetings. And when she began holding community and Community Police Advisory Board meetings online, attendance actually soared. In fact, she said, whether it’s due to what’s been going on in the world, and/or the fact that people find it easier to attend via Zoom, “I have never seen the kind of turnout we’ve had over the last year,” with anywhere from 50-500 people attending each meeting. Online meetings have been so successful, she said, that she hopes LAPD can provide some kind of hybrid system in the future, even after in-person meetings resume, so people can still attend via Zoom in if they want to.
Also, another bright spot, Paulson says that the events of the last year led to the creation of a new equity-focused subcommittee of the Wilshire Division CPAB, which focuses on the very issues that society has been struggling with recently. She says it’s the first and only committee of it’s kind in LAPD. “We had to answer for our history,” she said. But she also noted that there’s an educational component, too. For example, LAPD is often “held accountable for things [that happen] elsewhere, but don’t happen here,” she said, but “police are not universal.” And the Wilshire Division Procedural Justice Committee engages all kinds of officers from the force to explain local standards, policies, and more. “We are the most progressive, accountable well trained police department in the nation,” she says.
It sometimes seems that our local police captain positions are revolving doors, with commanding officers coming and going every year or two. Paulson said there are no official timelines for captain positions, but once people pass the captain’s test, the Police Chief tries to match them with positions, and they can either wait for an assignment or fill out a transfer form.
People already in captain positions also do the same, she said, looking for their next assignment. And right now, she said, there is a “significantly above average number” of people in those senior ranks either leaving or retiring from the police force (one symptom of our current socio/political trends). So she said there are an unusual number of vacancies in the higher ranks right now, leading to a lot of the remaining personnel moving around. In fact, she said, she has never seen a promotion list as large as the most recent one, with 19 new captains looking for positions just in the last month, which is more than you usually see in two years. “The face of our command staff will be completely different a year from now,” she said.
As for Paulson herself, she has been promoted to Commander, and will be the new Assistant Commanding Officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Division (including counter-terrorism, emergency services, security services, the LA Zoo police, the LAPD equestrian team, policing for the City Council field offices, libraries, parks, etc.) and the Metropolitan Division (which includes SWAT, teams with dogs that search for people, and LAPD air support – the largest municipal air force in the nation).
Paulson says that people in every position, including her, test for promotions because they feel they have something to offer, “but my heart and soul will always be with frontline police officers,” and there’s no doubt she will miss that. She said her new office will be downtown, just down the hall from the Chief of Police. So she won’t be able to just walk out and talk to cops on the street, like she does now. But in some ways, she says, she’s also going back to her roots – she worked in counter-terrorism for 12 years in the Navy – and looks forward to the new challenge.
Paulson says she also swears to never compromise her her well-known candor. She says she’s “not naive to politics,” but doesn’t necessarily have to like them, and prides herself on being a straight shooter, especially with the public. “I might not always say things people want to hear, but I think they need to hear the truth,” she said. And while she has, at times, paid a price for that, she says the public has been largely appreciative. “I don’t intend to change that in any way.”
As she prepares to leave Wilshire Division, Paulson said she does have a few regrets, especially missing out on so much personal interaction because of COVID. In fact, she said, she has created many relationships with local leaders and stakeholders whom she will never meet face to face. And she hasn’t been able to conduct the kind of in-person activities she enjoys, such as community walks in neighborhoods, and activities with the officers on her staff, who usually have two morale-building activities each year – a picnic and a holiday celebration with the entire division. That kind of “let-your-hair-down” community engagement, she said, just couldn’t be done during the pandemic, and she says she is sorry she hasn’t had the chance to really recognize, in a social, camaraderie-building environment, the Division workforce that “couldn’t be more deserving.” She says she will try to find another way, however, “to let everybody know how proud I am of them.”
All in all, Paulson says, even though her year and a half at Wilshire Division has been unusually challenging, “I feel that and hope that the community feels that I have met [the] challenge, given the situation.”
And her number one parting message for staff and community members?
“Get people to stop leaving their keys in their car.”
I will miss Commander Paulson. It was because of her engagement, her candor and her dedication that made me want to join C-PAB. I look forward to working with our new Captain to keep moving towards making our neighborhoods safer and our police recognized & accountable for their efforts & actions (both good and bad).
I agree with Shelby, Capt Paulson was very active with our neighborhood councils. If you contacted her, you more than likely got a reply back. And she was helpful with our local party house issues on Lucerne Blvd.
Sonia Monico [email protected] steps into replace Paulson.