The revolving door of East Palo Alto police chief took another turn on Tuesday night after the City Council approved a third interim chief at the request of City Manager Magda Gonzalez.
The council approved Interim Captain Steve Belcher to take over on July 1, replacing Lee Violett. Violett had replaced Federico Rocha, who came on board after longtime chief Ronald Davis left to serve as the director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in Washington, D.C. in November 2013.
While the city searches for a permanent replacement, it has worked to keep the department stable by hiring retired heads of other police departments. But each is only allowed to stay in the position for 960 hours while retaining retirement benefits with the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS). Each of the interim chiefs has reached that limit.
Belcher's appointment is the third in eight months. July 10 is the last day for applications for the permanent police chief's job, Council Member Ruben Abrica said.
Gonzalez proposed to the City Council in February that it direct staff to explore contracting police services with the sheriff's department as a possible way to cut the city's budget deficit, but the council rebuffed the idea. Abrica said at the time that he is concerned that a switch would negatively impact residents' feelings regarding their safety.
"This is not the same as contracting out (the) cleaning of the windows. The police department is the biggest part of our expenses. These kinds of changes start to create a certain instability," he said.
"In the past five years, there has been a general improvement and more responsiveness from the police department. It's a good place to be, and we need to build on that. Anything that can jeopardize the progress we've made is not acceptable. This is a very serious and sensitive issue, and we need to pay attention to it," he said.
On Tuesday, Abrica again voiced the importance of maintaining a consistent and stable police presence from a community perspective.
"I think staff underestimated to a degree that the community does see the chief of the police department as a very important position," he said.
To that end, Abrica said the city would involve the community as advisers on the top cop pick, as it did when Davis was hired. The ultimate decision will be up to Gonzalez, but a residents panel to be appointed by the City Council would interview the finalists and give their recommendations to the council and city manager, he said.
Who makes the ultimate hiring decision for a permanent chief has evolved over the years, Abrica said. The City Council hired the first police chief, but municipal code changed to allow the council or the city manager that power. Eventually, the task was given to the city manager. The appointment is always completed with input from the council, he added.
East Palo Alto residents have not always had an easy relationship with their police department, and incorporating community input into the hiring process has always been deemed critical. Local control of law enforcement was a driving force behind East Palo Alto's incorporation in 1983, Abrica said. Prior to that time, East Palo Alto relied on the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office for services.
But East Palo Alto's police department experienced growing pains after the fledgling city began operations. Soaring violent crime that made national headlines and a scathing San Mateo County grand jury report in 1997 regarding department failings and lack of professional training fueled a lack of trust.
Davis served as chief for eight years and was lauded for bringing the city out of that era. His
focus on community-policing practices built greater trust with residents and strengthened the department through partnerships with outside agencies. He also worked to find ways to reduce criminal recidivism through programs that got to the root of crime: drug and mental health intervention, job training and a parolee reentry program that provides services and support to people exiting the prison system.
Davis' former second in command, Federico Rocha, took over as interim chief from Nov. 11, 2013, until Jan. 20, 2014, when he reached the 960-hour work limit.
Rocha was replaced on Feb. 18 by Violett, the retired chief of the San Bruno Police Department. Violett will reach the 960-hour limit on June 30.
Belcher is is the retired chief of the Santa Cruz Police Department. His career spans more than 40 years, starting in Fresno County and reaching to the cities of Bell, Capitola, East Palo Alto, Marina, Santa Cruz and Soledad.