Coffee with the chief

What Chico’s top cop is doing in the wake of America’s strained relations with law enforcement

I met Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien for a cup of coffee the other day, and was paying the tab when a middle-aged man with dreadlocks started chatting him up. I didn’t want to interrupt what I could tell was a friendly interaction, so I hung back. At the end of their short conversation, the man handed the chief a white crystal the size of a large marble.

This was the day after a gunman ambushed Baton Rouge law enforcement officers, killing three in that embattled Louisiana city. A little more than a week before that, five officers were killed by a heavily armed sniper during an otherwise peaceful march in Dallas.

I don’t know if the man recognized O’Brien as Chico’s top lawman, but he certainly could tell the chief was a cop—being strapped with a pistol gave him away. Regardless, the crystal was a nice way to show gratitude to a longtime police officer who, like other law enforcement officials, has had a rough go lately.

O’Brien said Chico Police Department personnel have been inundated with similar acts of kindness from community members—families with small children bringing in cards and flowers, an elderly woman who baked a big batch of cookies, among other gestures. “I’m overwhelmed by the support,” he said.

The chief had invited me to chat. It’d been about year since our last meeting. The timing was strange this time around, though, given the scrutiny of police based on questionable shootings of civilians at the same time as a national outpouring of support for law enforcement. There’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides, we agreed.

Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically, O’Brien said: “We need to have those tough conversations.”

That was the backdrop of our meeting, so the conversation held a serious tone.

I was glad to hear O’Brien’s responses to several of my questions. I found out a lot—that the department is close to having every officer equipped with a body camera (a win for transparency), that racial-bias training is standard every two years (a California thing), that the department has recently recruited three additional women (female officers are less likely to use excessive force).

Diversity is still an issue. (Chico’s only black cop is also the first black sergeant in the department’s history).

I also asked O’Brien about a recent Black Lives Matter rally at City Plaza during which Chico police were viewed as less than welcoming. According to the chief, there was more to the story than the officers throwing their weight around. He told me that a local man had posted a threatening message—that he’d “like to see an officer shot in the head”—on social media in response to the event.

No wonder they were on edge. The good news is O’Brien and some of his staff met with the organizers in an attempt to form a relationship. He told them about the threatening language to give them context for his employees’ response to the rally, and they all agreed to continue the dialogue.

One of O’Brien’s primary messages is that the police department should be a part of the community. Communication is a big part of the equation. “You can’t fix anything if you move into isolated camps,” he said. Hear, hear.