Long goodbye

Chico city manager launches national search as police chief announces June retirement

The plan was to leave sooner.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien told the CN&R he had been mulling over a lucrative job opportunity several months ago. His résumé and application were ready for submission. But after counseling with his family, O’Brien shifted course.

The new gig would have come about six months following the Camp Fire, which reshaped the city, expanding the population by about 20,000 people.

“We thought, You know, it’s not all right,” the police chief said. “You can’t do that. … We need to stick this out for another year.”

At a news conference last Thursday (Jan. 16), O’Brien announced his intention to retire from the police department effective June 5, a move that has launched a search for his successor.

At 58, O’Brien will have served 31 years in law enforcement at the time of his retirement, with 28 in Chico and the last five as chief of police. His tenure as the top cop is among the longest in recent city history, and he said he would not be stepping down if he was not confident in the leadership of the department. O’Brien personally endorsed his deputy chief, Matt Madden, for his job.

“It’s been my distinct privilege to serve in this capacity, but we have navigated several crises that have happened in the city and I think as a leader—as a chief—you only have so much of those in you to navigate,” O’Brien said. “I think there are times where you have to realize that it may be time to allow others that you have prepared to take the reins.”

The hiring of a new police chief will fall on the shoulders of City Manager Mark Orme, who told the CN&R he intends to recruit nationally for candidates, akin to the city’s search for a fire chief in 2017. Steve Standridge was hired out of Colorado for that post.

As for O’Brien’s endorsement, Orme said he did not doubt Madden’s skills or competency and did not rule out an internal hire. The city manager expects tough competition for the role, which he said requires a person who will serve in the public’s interest, garner the respect of police officers and work collaboratively with other city departments.

Public input will be sought through City Council members, Orme said, as well as a panel he will assemble.

To that end, Emily Alma, coordinator for Concerned Citizens for Justice, a local group formed following the fatal police shooting of Desmond Phillips in 2017, said while the police department has made progress—such as instituting a mobile crisis response unit—there is a need for more improvements.

A new police chief, Alma said, should review the department’s use-of-force policies, ensure compliance with state legislation that gives the public the right to access certain police misconduct and use-of-force records, and implement ongoing officer training in implicit bias and de-escalation techniques.

Finally, Alma said, a new chief must engender trust between residents and law enforcement through a comprehensive community policing plan, which should include the restructuring of the Police Community Advisory Board to foster more engagement and “give and take” between citizens and law enforcement.

During O’Brien’s time as chief, city police have fatally shot three men: Eddie Sanchez Jr., Phillips and Tyler Rushing.

Work has been done to mend community relations and “heal those wounds,” the police chief said, adding that those efforts continue.

“It’s not something that you just fix in a short period of time,” he said. “It’s an ongoing relationship that you must have, and it involves transparency. It involves good policy. It involves having good people in your employ, and we have that.”