Ray Sweeney, La Mesa’s new police chief, can’t talk about the significance of where he is without talking about where he was.
It comes down to one day as an 8-year-old, when he was put in a chokehold by a relative’s partner, who held a gun to his head.
“I was scared to death,” he said, recounting the incident with family members that took place outside a hotel in Orange County.
He felt helpless that his own flesh and blood, a person who was supposed to protect him, stood by and did nothing, even as his brother begged them to stop.
As tensions eased and the grip around his neck was loosened, Sweeney said his captor turned to him and said, “Listen honey, it wasn’t loaded.”
“Like that makes it better,” he said.
It was a defining moment for Sweeney, one that stands out from a childhood riddled with domestic violence, and a memory that resonates in everything he does.
“I never want to see somebody go through what I went through,” he said last week during an interview.
Why share such an intimate and painful experience?
“I think everybody goes through traumas and struggles in life,” he said. “It’s how you react to it. I never saw myself as the victim. I didn’t want to be a victim.”
Instead, he took refuge in learning. He played trumpet in the school band and competed as a freestyle swimmer for his high school swim team.
“I still excelled in school. I read. I just buried myself in books as a kid,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney, 52, was chosen last week to succeed Walt Vasquez, who retired last year amid the social justice movement. Sweeney, who is White, beat out an ethnically diverse field of more than two dozen candidates.
Vasquez was at the helm and Sweeney one of two captains when La Mesa was rocked by civil unrest on May 30, 2020.
As the protest wound down, an uprising began just outside of the Police Department, prompting law enforcement to deploy tear gas and beanbag rounds to disperse a largely unruly crowd.
The unrest escalated into the night and through the early morning hours of May 31. Downtown mom & pop stores were looted, two major banks and one historical building were burned to the ground, and shock and sadness permeated the entire community.
The La Mesa Police Department building, targeted and tagged with graffiti during the rioting, is less than two blocks from the downtown business district that was hit the hardest.
Sweeney took the city’s beating to heart. He said not only does he work, shop and eat in La Mesa, he has lived in the area for two decades and raised his three sons, now adults, in the city. He has forged a deep bond with the community, city staff, residents and businesses.
He said he understood why community members were angry, business owners frustrated and some residents fearful.
Months later, an outside firm hired by the city confirmed what Sweeney already knew — that locals, critical of the city’s lack of communication and overall handling of the situation, had lost faith in the Police Department.
Craig Maxwell, who has owned a local used bookstore on La Mesa Boulevard for the past 18 years, said he remembers seeing Sweeney visiting businesses affected by the violence.
“I don’t know Sweeney personally, but he was one of the cops who showed up and talked to the people after the riots,” Maxwell said. “He did a great deal to assuage anxiety on the street and let people know that the initial shock that police weren’t prepared for was now firmly in their hands.”
In the months that followed, other social justice demonstrations took place and police were better prepared, Sweeney said.
“I think hindsight is the best teacher in the world,” he said.
He said open communication with a Black local religious leader, Pastor Lance Black of Flowers in the Garden Christian Ministries, helped him process his thoughts and feelings following the unrest.
Black said Sweeney views and cares for La Mesa residents as if they are his children. “When he’s talking to you, even in official capacity, he is talking to you on a personal level.”
Black and Sweeney first met in the early afternoon of May 30, long before the demonstration devolved into destruction.
“I went to the station to talk to him and he came out in his uniform, getting everyone ready to be prepared for what was going to happen,” Black recalled. “Then, he was Capt. Sweeney. But when he began to speak to me, it was as a father. And I was a single father at the time, too.
“You could see the conflict, that he as a public safety officer has a job to do, that he wanted to ensure everyone’s safety. But then I saw his fatherhood. He knew there were children out there. We had a conversation about personal life and he began to talk to me as a friend. We talked about the challenges we face and he said he’s trying to do the right things, with a nurturing spirit. Once we had that conversation, I considered him a friend, and we’ve stayed in contact.”
Sweeney started his public safety career at age 32 with the La Mesa Police Department. He was promoted to captain in 2015. He was previously a lieutenant, sergeant, detective and master officer.
During his tenure, Sweeney earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management from Union Institute & University based out of Ohio, and a master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership from the University of San Diego.
Sweeney also has a long history in the military. He joined the U.S. Army at age 17 after graduating from Lake Elsinore High School. He served more than 25 years collectively with the Army and California Army National Guard. During his military career, Sweeney reached the rank of sergeant major.
Just two years into his career at the La Mesa Police Department, Sweeney worked stateside for the National Guard as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Four months after being promoted to sergeant, Sweeney deployed to Europe, where he spent 2008 and 2009 supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Kosovo.
“I think for myself, coming in at a later age to be a police officer, I brought that (life) experience,” Sweeney said.
More than 40 years removed from the incident in the hotel parking lot, Sweeney said he’s had to draw his gun over the course of his career, but has never used it for deadly force. He said he has fired his gun only at the shooting range.
Sweeney said police work is difficult, but it’s also rewarding.
He said that people don’t call 911 when they’re having their best day; people call 911 when they need help. And it is especially then that officers need to be good listeners and be empathetic.
“That time, that moment when the police are arriving, that is our opportunity to set the tone for how they’ll look at police in the future,” Sweeney said.
He said that “care, compassion, empathy are all things that you need to have as a police officer… treat people the way like I would want to be treated, treat them as human beings. People are human, they make mistakes.”
While Sweeney’s appointment was praised by many, members of the city’s Community Police Oversight Board who participated in the interviewing process said they would have preferred an outside candidate.
“I guess the thought for me is I would have preferred somebody from the outside,” said Leroy Johnson, a 68-year-old Black man and member of the oversight board. “Since we needed change, we would probably get more change from the outside and we didn’t get that change agent that we could have. But Ray Sweeney is going to do a great job; he’s got the insider view. I’m sure he’ll do fine.”
“People have asked me, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?’” Sweeney said. “And my answer is, ‘Am I sure? I don’t think we’re sure of anything.’ But do I want to see this department and this city move forward? The answer is yes. And I believe I’m that person to do it.”