Ironically, it would be Sanders attempt at promotion that would get him very well known throughout the department. Despite scoring number two on the test, Sanders found himself passed over for less qualified officers thirteen times. Sanders response was to file a lawsuit. He later recalled, “I tried asking why I had been passed over but no one would answer me.” The lawsuit was unsuccessful but by the time it wound its way through court he had already been promoted.
Sanders quickly proved himself an adept supervisor and at the thirteen-year mark of his career he found himself a captain in charge of Eastern Division. Sanders continued to work his way up until he found himself as a candidate for police chief. Despite only having 9 months experience as an assistant chief, Sanders submitted his name for consideration for the top job. As with the selections of previous chiefs, the city managers office still conducted a nationwide search before making him the top choice.
When Sanders took office he chose not to fill the office of (executive) assistant chief of police that had traditionally served as the number two position within the department.
Sanders also showed he was different from other chiefs when he asked the council to give extra money not to the police department but to park and recreation for crime prevention programs. Sanders theory was that it was easier to prevent the crime from happening than to respond to it afterwards.
Sanders also took neighborhood policing to a new level by focusing on citizens’ perception of crime in their neighborhoods, a problem sometimes worse than the crime itself. Using the theory that graffiti, blighted houses and abandoned cars attract a criminal element, Sanders began training officers to combat crime before it started.
The trend towards this style of community policing had existed in various forms for years, and under different chiefs, but now it was formal and a department wide operation. The plan had mixed reactions from the officers on the beat. Some welcomed the ability to use innovative ways to combat problem spots on the beat, while others stood by the idea cops are employed to arrest people and are not social workers. Regardless, officers were sent to community meetings and began to interact with other city agencies to clean up neighborhoods. Within a few years the crime rate in San Diego began to decline. Was it due to neighborhood policing? That remains to be seen but it most likely at least played some part.
Despite Sanders fast accession through the ranks, he said he never lost focus of the hardworking officers patrolling the streets and investigating cases. Sanders later said, “I watched how my father busted his butt every day when he went to work. That always left an impression on me.” It was that line of thinking that would lead Sanders to occasionally telling his secretary Debbie Wake to hold all of his calls as he went out in uniform and a marked police car to answer radio calls.
On May 17, 1995, Sanders found the police department the focus of international news when Shawn Nelson, an unemployed plumber with a military background, stole a National Guard M-60 tank and drove through the Mesa College area leading police on a nationally televised chase.
Detective Howard LaBore was the first officer to spot the tank and at first he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I thought it was just a tank being moved by the army until I saw him run over some cars” LaBore later said.
For more than an hour the tank drove through city streets, smashing into traffic poles and running over the tops of cars. As officers chased the heavily armored tank, it became very obvious there was simply nothing in the police arsenal to stop such a formidable weapon. A number of officers came on the police radio asking for military hardware to stop the vehicle, only to be told there was nothing available.
As the chase went southbound through the middle of the City on Highway 163, Nelson suddenly attempted to drive the tank over the top of a concrete center divider. It was there the tank threw a tread and became stuck. As Nelson attempted to free the tank, Officers Paul Paxton and Rick Piner and Detective LaBore, climbed on top of the tank to try and get him out.
Since Paxton was a former tank driver in the Marine Corps, he was able to open the hatch of the tank where he could see Nelson still working the controls. All three officers yelled into the tank for Nelson to give up. Their commands fell on deaf ears as Nelson only increased his efforts to throw the officers off of the tank by rocking it back and forth. Faced with no other option, Officer Piner drew his weapon and shot Nelson just above the shoulder. The three officers reached into the tank to bring Nelson out for medical assistance. It was too late Nelson was already dead.
Officers investigating the crime scene found more than 10 miles of devastation. It would take several days and a team of officers to complete the vast amount of paper work.
In 1996 Sanders and the entire department were back in the national spotlight when the city hosted the Republican National Convention. Two years later, the department provided security when the city held its second Super Bowl. Both events were heavily attended by people from around the world and neither event had any major problems. Like the expositions of the earlier part of the 20th century, the departments planning and management showed to the world how a professional police force can handle major events.
By 1998 Sanders was ready to move onto other things. The long hours and six day work schedule was taking a toll on his other responsibility, being a father to his two young daughters.
In 1999 Sanders announced his resignation as chief to accept a job as the CEO of the United Way charities in San Diego.
Immediately after Sanders announced he was leaving, a search was launched for his successor. As candidates were being interviewed by the city manager, someone needed to serve as chief in the event no one had been selected by the time Sanders left office. Since a new chief still had not been selected when Sanders left on April 16, 1999, Assistant Chief Keith Enerson was chosen as the interim.