New Chief Ray Sweeney, on the right, with former chief Walt Vasquez, center, and Matt Nicholass, left. Photo credit: @ChopperBikerDog, via Twitter

Ray Sweeney, a 20-year La Mesa police veteran, was named Thursday to head the department, after the former chief retired last summer.

Former Chief Walt Vasquez left amid a spate of allegations of excessive force on the part of his department’s sworn personnel following protests of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

The appointment, effective immediately, follows a months-long nationwide recruitment search. Prior to his promotion, Sweeney served for six years as a LMPD captain, La Mesa City Manager Greg Humora said.

Sweeney, a former member of the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard who was hired by the department in 2001, called his selection as the agency’s 12th chief “a huge honor and responsibility.”

“I am truly humbled to lead the great men and women of the La Mesa Police Department into the future as we reimagine policing for our community,” he said in a prepared statement. “I have been fortunate to build great relationships throughout the community and look forward to forging new relationships in this important role.”

Sweeney will take part in a series of community meetings in the near future to give residents a chance to meet him and share their thoughts about local crime and law enforcement, according to Humora.

The city manager said locals “will benefit from (Sweeney’s) immediate familiarity with our city and police department while also leveraging his strong character and clear vision for effective community policing.”

La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis said he was confident that Sweeney “understands we must honor the past but also challenge the future by being more inclusive, listening to our residents and making positive changes to our policing practices.”

“I have seen Chief Sweeney in difficult situations and in casual community interactions,” Arapostathis said in a statement. “He is a consummate professional who represents the best of our police department and community values. Chief Sweeney has my full support, and I look forward to his efforts to advance our police department.”

LMPD Capt. Matt Nicholass took on the post of interim head of the department after Vasquez stepped down Aug. 27.

In the months that led up to Vasquez’s retirement, the La Mesa Police Department came under fire for the rough arrest of a young Black man near Grossmont Transit Center and for officers’ actions during a raucous and destructive protest prompted by that controversy and the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

The alleged episodes of excessive force led to lawsuits against the city by the man detained at the transit depot, Amaurie Johnson, 23, and by several people who were struck in the face or head by “less-than- lethal” law enforcement projectiles during the downtown demonstration.

Vasquez had planned to retire early last year, but delayed his departure when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in mid-March, remaining to help the city during the crisis, according to LMPD officials.

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