A new boss at the cop shop

Chico swears in Mike O’Brien as chief of police

New Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien gets sworn into office by City Clerk Debbie Presson.

New Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien gets sworn into office by City Clerk Debbie Presson.

PHOTO by Howard hardee

Chico has a new police chief coming into office at a time when the nation is questioning police-related shootings, the local homeless and transient community seems to be expanding and some are questioning why in recent years Chico police chiefs have tended to serve for three years max before retiring.

Capt. Mike O’Brien was sworn into office Tuesday, June 2, before a packed City Council chambers that included dozens of current and retired officers, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and former Chief Mike Maloney. It was clear from the standing ovation that O’Brien enjoys a large amount of support from the council, community and police department. In his acceptance speech, he said he was humbled to be given the opportunity, honored to serve and felt blessed to be Chico’s new police chief.

O’Brien first came to Chico in 1984 to attend Chico State, having grown up in the Bay Area city of Dublin before his family moved to Red Bluff during his junior year of high school. He worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for four years before getting hired by then-Chico Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh. He has reared four children, all of whom were at the swearing-in ceremony, along with his wife, parents and in-laws.

O’Brien said he enters office at a critical juncture as the news of police shootings has taken on a high profile nationwide. He said it is important for the police department to build relationships with every segment of the community.

“That means the police chief and the police department should never be isolated from any part of the community,” he said in an interview with CN&R. “When that isolation occurs, I think some things can break down. I’m not here to excuse the rioting, the criminal behavior, because that is unacceptable. But if there is breakdown in relationships between police departments and certain segments of the community, I think there is a loss for both.”

He said the ongoing problem of homeless people and transients is complex and must be addressed by the entire community.

“There are two components to it: compassion and accountability,” he said. “If either one gets out of balance, you have issues. You need to have compassion for our fellow human beings, but there also has to be accountability on their part. If you allow one of those to supersede the other, you end up with issues. I want to be someone in this community that helps strike that balance.”

The new chief is taking over for Dunbaugh, who took the seat on an interim basis in January after the retirement of Chief Kirk Trostle. (Dunbaugh served as chief from 1992 to 1994.) Of the five chiefs who’ve served since—Jim Massie, Mike Efford, Bruce Hagerty, Maloney and Trostle—only Hagerty stayed in office longer than three years.

O’Brien, who agreed to a salary of $140,000, down from Trostle’s $154,000, said he recognizes the importance of serving a substantial term as chief.

“I understand loud and clear that this department and this community really want to see a chief with some longevity,” he said. “I’m thinking five to six years. That is what I will certainly do my best to serve. I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you honestly I have no intent in leaving after two or three years.”

The two most recent chiefs—Trostle and Maloney—retired once they became eligible to receive 90 percent of their highest pay because they had worked for a police department in the state for 30 years and were 50 years old. The 53-year-old O’Brien, including his four years with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, has three years to hit the 30-year mark.

City Manager Mark Orme, who’s been on the job for a year following a two-year stint as assistant city manager, said he also understands the significance of keeping a chief for longer than a few years.

“You have to make the best decision you can and put the right leader in the position,” he said. “And you hope that they stay long-term. It’s funny, when you look at any at-will position there’s always an expectation that that person will be dedicated to being long-term, but on the flip side, there is no guarantee that they can stay long-term.”