After a day of interviews, the City of East Palo Alto gave the community a chance Saturday to meet with the three final candidates for the position of chief of police.
All dressed in suits, the contenders -- Brian Ferrante, Thomas McCarthy and Albert Pardini -- answered questions from community members on issues that ranged from preventative programs to immigration, parolee reentry and police staffing levels. Though staff only intended to have the three candidates mingle during the hour-long event, Assistant City Manager Barbara Powell bowed to numerous requests and asked each candidate to give a brief statement from the podium.
The candidates talked about their backgrounds in police work in the Bay Area, as well as their goal of opening up new channels of communication with the East Palo Alto community. However, they had different, specific ideas on how they would go about accomplishing that objective.
Brian Ferrante, who most recently retired as captain of the Foothill Division in San Jose, talked about his 20 and a half years of experience working with the San Jose Police Department. He compared the demographics and issues of East Palo Alto to those in that area, mentioning specifically a gap between the community and the city's police.
"You have a community that in a lot of ways has been underserved or maybe doesn't trust the police department or know how to access services," Ferrante said. "So one of the issues that we want to overcome is that fear and that distrust by going out there and being a force with the community and reaching out to those people who really don't feel like they have a voice."
Ferrante also mentioned the importance of having the police be a positive presence in schools, as well as tailoring programs to particular issues in the community. He gave as one example a zip code in the Foothill Division where his force had noticed a higher than expected incidence of youth committing low-level crimes. He said that he brought the police, community organizations and other entities together to look at the problem. Eight months ago they started a program that would "funnel" these offenders into counseling at Mount Pleasant High School.
The next candidate who spoke was Albert "Al" Pardini, who referenced his 31 years of experience in the San Francisco Police Department. Pardini said that he is familiar with East Palo Alto and has watched the policing strategies there so that he could apply that knowledge in a two-year role as police captain in the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco.
Pardini offered specific ideas on how he would connect with the community in East Palo Alto: interacting with community-based organizations and the clergy; sending out weekly emails to educate the public and provide transparency on how the police are responding; and hold town hall meetings upon his hiring to introduce himself.
"I don't want to be this mysterious character, that 'They hired from where? And who is he?'" he said. "I want people to recognize me when I'm in the community."
Pardini also brought up the importance of creating a permanent, main location for the department, to replace the current fragmentation over a few locations. Bringing those together would facilitate collaboration among officers and make it easier for community members to request help, he said.
Thomas "Tom" McCarthy, the third candidate and the current chief of police for Dublin in the East Bay, said that he has held a variety of positions -- everything from "community policing" to assignments at the Santa Rita Jail, working in internal affairs and training new sergeants. His career with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office has lasted 31 years, he said. In his statement he emphasized his experience as a teacher and mentor.
One of the big paradigm shifts, he said, was when he was a sergeant and he was put in charge of developing and improving the department's community-policing program.
"I kind of have a history of getting sent to duty stations that needed some assistance to put them back on track," he said.
A community member later approached McCarthy to ask him why he wanted the job. He responded that East Palo Alto is currently going through a transformation and community members will want more out of their public services. He also mentioned the small size of East Palo Alto as providing an opportunity to make significant changes.
"I really like being part of change management," he said.
Powell said anyone who wants to provide feedback on the candidates can email her at email@example.com or any of the City Council members.
East Palo Alto has been searching for a permanent police chief since longtime head Ronald Davis left in November 2013 to serve as the director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in Washington, D.C. Steve Belcher, a retired Santa Cruz Police Department chief, has been serving as interim chief -- the city's third since Davis left -- since July 1.
With the meet-and-greet completed, a 10-member panel of community members and City Council members that interviewed the candidates on Saturday will give input to City Manager Magda Gonzalez, who will make the final decision on the candidates. Whoever is chosen will also have to undergo a thorough background check and physical exam. City officials have said they hope to hire a new police chief by mid-October.