A good start

Mike O’Brien has accomplished much in his first three months as police chief

Last week, this newspaper got a look at newly appointed Police Chief Mike O’Brien’s vision for the Chico Police Department, including its reorganized administrative structure—an effort that should have taken place years ago, but was never a priority under previous poor leadership.

The last couple of Chico police chiefs were more concerned with propaganda campaigns designed to bolster the department’s budget—and line the pockets of its employees—and sustaining the department’s good-old-boy club than with the health and welfare of the community they ostensibly served. Those efforts were largely successful, as a majority of the City Council members voted in favor of raises that will cost taxpayers an additional $1.5 million over the next three years.

Keep in mind that those pay hikes were approved on the heels of the worst recession since the Great Depression, following tactics in which Chico Police Officers’ Association’s leaders attempted to hold the community hostage by refusing to patrol certain areas of the city. The combative relationship between the thugs at the union and city management and citizens was palpable for many months. Somewhere along the line, the motto “protect and serve” became little more than lip service.

As a result, the department lost the respect and trust of the community. And that’s not something easily earned.

That means O’Brien has his work cut out for him. But to his credit, he appears to know that and has already gone about the business of rebuilding the department’s relationships with the community, from everyday citizens and businesspeople to the university and the press.

During the Police Community Advisory Board’s meeting at the Old Municipal Building last week, O’Brien revealed the details of many changes within the department. They include a wholesale restructuring of the organization to the so-called community-oriented policing model that interim Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh kicked off during his short time leading the department. The model includes an increased number of mid-level managers under a deputy chief, rather than the previous structure in which administration and operations were overseen separately by two captains.

O’Brien has fine-tuned a plan that assigns each of those mid-level administrators—lieutenants—to three distinct geographic regions of the city, thus making them more accountable and accessible to the public. (Another lieutenant is in charge of investigations and yet another oversees administrative efforts.)

We’ve already seen the model working (see Howard Hardee’s report on page 10). In the last week, one of the lieutenants has stepped up patrols at Lower Bidwell Park, where illegal activity, including drug use and littering, has become rampant. Problems there are well beyond the scope of the city’s park rangers, especially in light of the not-so-veiled threats to those city workers. We’re pleased to see a proactive approach to policing in that beloved green space.

Other initiatives also speak to O’Brien’s commitment to the community-oriented model.

He is reintroducing the popular TARGET team—a special unit dedicated to responding to chronic neighborhood problems, for example. He’s also bringing the department into the 21st century though a number of efforts, including procuring an app that will allow police to share information with residents and vice versa.

What we’re seeing here is progress. Much of what O’Brien is attempting to accomplish could have taken place years ago—without squeezing the taxpayers. But his predecessors didn’t have the will or the community’s best interests at heart.

In our view, the new chief is off to a good start. He seems to have assembled a strong team capable of moving the organization in the right direction. We hope to see the momentum continue.