When Officer John Cochran walked into the lineup room at the police station, things quickly got heated.
Cochran, a Black man, got in an argument with another officer about what time they should have arrived for the meeting that was about to begin.
“You are not my supervisor,” Cochran said, according to a complaint he submitted to Internal Affairs. “Why do you feel you have privilege to tell me I’m late?”
The other officer replied: “I have my white privilege card.”
Cochran said the encounter, which happened in February, was one of many instances of discrimination he has experienced during his three decades at the San Diego Police Department. He has filed numerous complaints — he estimates about one a year — against other officers and supervisors to fight back against what he describes as “a culture of anti-Black racism on the department.”
Why this matters
Police officers are given powers to stop, detain, arrest and use force on citizens when warranted. They are expected to be unbiased and follow all laws and rules meant to prevent discrimination.
Cochran, who refers to himself as a whistleblower, is speaking out publicly for the first time about his concerns. He said he wants to “assure that my coworkers are treating people with respect and dignity, and try to get the department to be a little more transparent about these issues.”
A new state transparency law that went into effect last year, SB 16, allows the public to access internal case files on police misconduct, including when there are sustained findings of discrimination. SDPD has now released nearly 100 cases of excessive force, dishonesty, sexual assault, unreasonable searches and discrimination among its ranks.
The records include 17 cases of employee discrimination, inewsource found. Six of those cases found racial discrimination, four found bias against gay and transgender people and about half found bias against women.
White male officers were the most common offenders, the records show.
The discrimination cases include:
- A sergeant on the SWAT team who had a sexually suggestive drawing on his cubicle wall for four years.
- A lieutenant who said her working group would not do outreach to the gay community because of her “personal biases and religious beliefs.”
- An officer who put a cutout of Black rapper Rick Ross in the police station with fake $100 bills in his hands.
The case files contain full investigative reports, disciplinary records, body worn camera footage and audio tape of interviews — but there are limitations. If an officer’s actions are exonerated or the investigation is ongoing, the records are not public under the new law.
The complaint Cochran submitted in February is still under investigation, but he provided inewsource with a copy, along with a recording of his Internal Affairs interview. He said he wants to help the public understand how discrimination is handled in the department.
SDPD spokesperson Lieutenant Adam Sharki said the department cannot comment on active personnel investigations, but “we can assure our community that discrimination in any form and against any group is not tolerated.”
“Allegations of discrimination or misconduct are thoroughly reviewed,” Sharki said in a statement. “Both the City of San Diego and SDPD have 100% response policies to allegations of discrimination. Any claims are investigated by Internal Affairs and Equal Employment Opportunity Investigators with multiple layers of review.”
The officer that Cochran accused, Dustin Welsh, has a finding of discrimination against him in the SB 16 records released online.
The Internal Affairs investigation took place in 2018, when Welsh, a white man who joined the force in 2007, was working the night shift in the Northern Division.
According to the case files, a colleague told investigators that Welsh has a tattoo which appears “dangerously close to a white Supremacist tattoo.” Internal Affairs concluded that Welsh joked about it being a gang symbol in front of a Black officer, which was offensive and constituted discrimination.
The Black officer, a practicing Muslim, told Internal Affairs that jokes and ridicule from Welsh caused him so much stress that he could not fast during Ramadan and “created a sense of shame upon him in his Mosque.”
Welsh did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Despite the findings, there are no records of discipline against Welsh in the case files. That’s true for more than half of the SDPD officers with findings of discrimination against them. An inewsource and KPBS investigation in March found discipline information is frequently missing from officer misconduct cases.
Cochran said he remembers his reaction when he learned about Welsh’s history.
“I was thinking that management tolerates this type of behavior,” he said.
Cochran wrote in his complaint that two supervisors were present when Welsh made the “white privilege card” comment, and neither reported the incident as required.
One of those supervisors, Sgt. Jacob Mosteller, was also the Internal Affairs officer who interviewed Cochran about his complaint. Mosteller can be heard arguing with Cochran on the interview tape about the details of the incident until eventually acknowledging that he heard the “white privilege card” statement.
Cochran reported that during the interview Mosteller handed him a form with Cochran’s captain’s name on it, a formal step in the complaint process. However, the captain later requested an investigation into Mosteller, claiming never to have authorized it.
Mosteller did not respond to requests for comment.
Dan Willis, a retired captain for the La Mesa Police Department who worked on Internal Affairs cases, said witnesses of possible misconduct should not interview people about what happened – doing so creates a potential conflict of interest.
“The best practice would be if somebody is potentially any type of witness or has any information about a complaint, that they’re not part of the investigation at all,” he said. “You don’t even want the appearance of that.”
SDPD would not comment on how Internal Affairs is handling the case.
Discrimination and retaliation
Cochran said he has faced retaliation repeatedly for filing complaints.
He submitted another complaint against the department in February alleging he was wrongfully denied an award for his role in saving a civilian’s life, and he believes the recognition — which three other officers involved received — could have led to a promotion or pay increase in the future. In his Internal Affairs interview, he pointed to other examples of what he views as retaliation, including not receiving work accommodations for his carpal tunnel syndrome and being removed from his duties as a field training officer.
The retaliation complaint is under review by the city’s Equal Employment Investigations office. It’s the third complaint Cochran has filed this year.
Cochran is a Navy veteran who decided to follow the career path of his father, a former deputy sheriff, and joined SDPD when he was 23 years old. Now 52, he said his new calling is raising awareness about discrimination in the department.
“When I’m discriminated against, it affects everything,” he said. “It affects my stress level, it affects my sleep level, it affects me financially. It affects how I feel about myself, how I feel about other people. It hurts coworkers. And it manifests out into the public.”
Internal Affairs sustained a finding against Cochran in 2018, when he unlawfully searched a vehicle and gym bag during a traffic stop. The case file says Cochran should not have searched the car because it was not impounded, since the driver’s license had only been expired for a few days — a rule that Cochran said he wasn’t aware of at the time.
Cochran said the whole investigation was retribution for filing complaints, but that hasn’t stopped him from being outspoken about discrimination on the force.
“I haven’t seen too many insiders want to speak because there’s a fear to speak about it,” he said. “I was nervous at a point to speak about it.”
Jenna Rangel, an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases in the public safety sector, said people are often afraid to come forward with complaints against their employers. Rangel, a partner at Haeggquist & Eck, helped a client win a sexual harassment lawsuit against the former San Diego assistant sheriff in 2021.
“I think the real biggest thing is they’ve seen someone else go through this, they’ve seen someone else complain and they’ve seen someone else be retaliated against,” Rangel said.
“This overarching fear is only there because it’s happened so many times over and over again,” she added.
There are nearly 2,000 San Diego Police officers, making it one of the largest city-funded occupations. A 2020 study found women and people of color are underrepresented on the force and city-wide are paid less on average than male and white employees.
Cochran pointed to police officers’ treatment of Black civilians as evidence of discriminatory attitudes in the department. A report from 2021 found that Black people were stopped 4.8 times more often than white people and were 4.6 times more likely to be subjected to uses of force by officers.
“You can look at the news and see all the incidents of racial discrimination and you see incidents of people of color being treated badly or being beaten by police,” he said. “I believe there’s not enough information out here to educate the public on why these things occur.”
Willis, the retired La Mesa captain, said discrimination can be a “cancer in an agency” because of the impact they can have on morale and relationships. The best way to prevent these situations, he said, is by not tolerating them.
“So if you have that consistent message that’s not just consistently expressed by the chief and the top administration, but it’s actually reaffirmed by our actions and how we deal with investigations and how we treat them seriously,” he said.
Type of Content
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.