Policing green spaces

Chico’s new community-based policing model includes stronger ties with park rangers

Recently appointed Police Chief Mike O’Brien has restructured his department to adopt a community-policing model.

Recently appointed Police Chief Mike O’Brien has restructured his department to adopt a community-policing model.

Photo by howard hardee

Messages scrawled underneath a Lindo Channel bridge and also at One-Mile Recreation Area might be threatening to police and park rangers—some reading “RIP park rangers” and others identifying police officers by name and badge number—but the graffiti isn’t the only reason for stepping up enforcement efforts in Chico’s green spaces. So, too, are face-to-face confrontations with “a menacing element,” said interim Chico Police Lt. Rob Merrifield.

At One-Mile specifically, park workers have had a number of “uncomfortable” and “fairly threatening” interactions with park users over the last week while picking up trash or telling people they can’t camp along Big Chico Creek.

“These people were refusing to comply when park staff asked them to move,” Merrifield said by phone this week. “They were directly letting the staff know that the park was theirs. Around then, we started seeing the graffiti pop up. Those things happening together are what prompted a stronger response from the police department.”

Under those circumstances, rangers and police have been working together to roust homeless people from encampments and crack down on criminal activity. The department has diverted officers who would otherwise be patrolling downtown to the park, Merrifield said.

Strengthening the partnership with park rangers is one aspect of the community-policing model adopted by the recently restructured Chico Police Department. Newly appointed Police Chief Mike O’Brien announced his reorganization plan shortly after he was sworn into office at the City Council meeting in early June—taking over for interim Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh—and detailed specifics about it for the first time during the Police Community Advisory Board meeting on Aug. 19.

When O’Brien took the reigns, he “heard loud and clear from the community” about quality of life in Chico, he said. Many citizens expressed feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods, workplaces and the city’s parks. It was also clear Chico police “needed to build bridges” both internally and with the broader community, he said.

Now, three lieutenants are responsible for separate geographic regions of Chico and will be held accountable to the public, including through the app-based, neighborhood-oriented social media platform Nextdoor, which will allow citizens to submit comments and police to gather information on specific areas upon its launch in late September. Around the same time, O’Brien is reintroducing the TARGET Team—disbanded since early 2013 due to budget cuts—to focus on chronic problems in neighborhoods that draw a disproportionate number of calls for service and, by regularly hitting the streets on foot, serving as familiar faces to the public.

Another longstanding issue O’Brien plans on tackling is succession of administrative positions. (Of the five chiefs who have served since Dunbaugh’s original term, from 1992 to 1994, only Bruce Hagerty stayed in office longer than three years and some, such as Police Chief Kirk Trostle, left unexpectedly.) Merrifield agreed that “we haven’t necessarily done a good job” of grooming internal replacements for the department’s outgoing administrators. But change is in motion, Merrifield says, as he believes the department is already in the process of finding a replacement for his position, since he’ll be retiring within the next two years.

O’Brien will oversee the changes with a robust force compared with just last year, when only 64 police officers were on staff. Now, the department has 87 sworn officers—though that figure includes 10 currently in training—and is close to reaching its goal of assigning all 92 of its allocated positions. However, it likely will take a full year before the new recruits can patrol without the supervision of training officers.

In the meantime, as police and park rangers work to make Bidwell Park safer and cleaner, the partnership between Chico Police Department and the Parks Division is proving useful, Merrifield said. When members of that “menacing element” see a police patrol car approaching in the park, they tend to disperse before officers can speak with them. But riding with park staff is a different story.

“In some instances the park maintenance truck pulls up and people don’t know if it’s going to be a park worker or a police officer who gets out,” Merrifield said. “That’s allowed us to drive right up to these people before they see us coming.”