Chief concerns

A candidate for Chico police chief has emerged and he has baggage

Candidates for city department heads typically remain confidential, but one likely vying for the Chico Police chief post has emerged this week. His name is Steve Gesell, he’s San Luis Obispo’s police chief, and according to news outlets in that region, he was placed on administrative leave in early May and is departing that position at the end of this month.

Gesell wouldn’t confirm it with SLO media, but their sources say he’s a finalist for the Chico job.

What do we know about him? According to reports in SLO papers and TV news, he grew up in that coastal region, spent a couple decades policing in Scottsdale, Ariz., was hired in 2009 as a commander in Atascadero, and took the chief post at the nearby San Luis Obispo Police Department in 2012. Gesell’s departure just three years later isn’t voluntary; he’s being cut loose, attributable to him and the city manager having “fundamental differences about the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the police chief,” reads a statement from the city.

What else do we know? Well, Gesell seems to also have some fundamental differences between what he says versus what he does. To wit: On May 1, his attorney sent a letter to SLO’s City Council, stating adamantly that Gesell wanted to remain that city’s chief of police. That’s interesting considering the application date for the Chico post was open only until the end of February. His lawyer subsequently negotiated a six-figure severance package.

The situation reminds me of someone else who couldn’t keep his story straight: Chico short-timer Brian Nakamura. After news broke that he’d interviewed for the position of Chico city manager back in 2012, Nakamura repeatedly told Hemet officials and its local newspaper that he was committed to that city. Weeks later he bailed on Hemet. And as we all know, he bailed on Chico in less than two years.

But back to Gesell. The guy is no stranger to controversy. He was criticized earlier this year following an investigative report in SLO’s daily paper, The Tribune, that revealed his exorbitant spending (nearly $8,000) on professional development—more than twice as much as that spent by any of his law enforcement colleagues in SLO County. The report prompted changes in the city’s travel policy. Additionally, Gesell was branded a loose cannon after writing an op-ed defending Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Conversely, he has been praised by at least one SLO City Council member for doing an “outstanding job, especially dealing with transients downtown and putting more bicycle patrols downtown.” Transients? Downtown? This guy sounds like a shoo-in for Chico’s chief.

In all seriousness, it’s going to be interesting following this. One of my main concerns with Gesell is that he’s a career cop who is almost 50, which means he’s nearing that formula where he can retire at 90 percent of his highest salary for the rest of his life. Chico’s last two chiefs cut out at that magic number. What would stop this guy from doing the same?