Chico’s newest police chief is more cop than politician. That may be just what the department needs
Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty is walking west on Third Street for a lunch date at the Redwood Forest. I’m standing in the restaurant’s entryway, waiting for him to arrive, when I hear a loud bang that sounds like it came from the intersection of Third and Broadway. I look out the door and see the chief stop and turn to where the noise came from.
Then he walks toward the intersection, quickly. I leave the restaurant, catch up and stand next to him as he surveys the situation: pedestrians and drivers going about their business as if nothing happened.
“It wasn’t sharp enough to be a …” He doesn’t end the sentence, but I know he was headed toward “gun shot.”
I offer, “Yeah, sounded like boards or lumber falling from the back of a truck.”
In that brief episode, Hagerty shows me he is suspicious, intuitive and quick to respond.
He’s a cop.
A few days later we are in his office for an interview. Sitting behind his desk, Hagerty is dressed casually in a gray knit pullover with the Boys & Girls Club logo on it. His dark hair is streaked with silver. He has a cop’s moustache and brown eyes, and he’s built like a fire hydrant.
I’m surprised by his attire. He wears his uniform to City Council meetings, the first chief to do that since before John Bullerjahn, who became chief in 1977. When I mention this to a cop friend of mine who lives in another town, he suggests Hagerty’s wearing of his uniform is a sign to the rank and file that he’s a cop first, not a politician.
Officers here echo that sentiment. The new chief is respected, they say, and has strong leadership qualities, something greatly needed at this point in time in the department. He’s been chief since March 2, so obviously the relationship is still in the honeymoon stage.
Hagerty came here after three years as chief in Ridgecrest, a Navy town in Kern County of about 25,000 people. Before that he served 28 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, the last several as a commander in three different districts, including South-Central L.A., one of the most dangerous areas of the city. He was a commander during the 1991 so-called Rodney King riots, which erupted when four officers were found not guilty in the beating of King.
Hagerty, 54, was born in Butte, Mont., and moved with his family as a child to Long Beach, where his father worked for Douglas Aircraft. The family later moved to Buena Park, where he attended junior-high and high school. He attended Fullerton Junior College and then joined the National Guard before enrolling at the University of Redlands, where he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He and his wife Myrna each have three children from previous marriages, including her son, Dr. Scott Hood, a Chico orthodontist. Two of Hagerty’s sons are police officers who are in turn married to police employees.
He’s long been connected to the Boys and Girl Clubs. On his office wall behind his desk is a bulletin/ dry-erase board with a message from Chico Boys and Girls Club Director Maureen Pierce that says, “Bruce, thanks for being such a good sport, your friends at the Boys & Girls Club.
His former comrades speak highly of him. New Ridgecrest Police Chief Mike Avery credits Hagerty with his success as a leader.
“Because of his guidance and teaching, now I’m the chief,” Avery said. “But one thing you can say about him is he’s short. That was the running joke around here because the chief he replaced was 6-foot-9-inches tall.
“But obviously I have the highest respect for him. He is truly committed to the community and his officers.”
Ridgecrest Police Officer Mark Marr, who’s been with the force 13 years, echoed Avery.
“When Chief Hagerty arrived, everybody loved him right away. He’s a great guy. Well, wait. I can’t say everybody loved him. When you’re the chief and budget crunch comes, you’re not going to make everybody happy.
“But I truly hated to see him leave. He was fair, and when you messed up he let you know. But he didn’t hold it over your head forever.”
Since Hagerty’s become chief, Chico’s gone through a St. Patrick’s Day without major incident. There was also an intersection sit-down protest a day after the Iraq War started, with about 20 arrests after a few hours.
A few weeks ago, working with the Butte County Interagency Narcotics Task Force (BINTF), the local police capped a three-month sting operation in the Downtown Plaza Park that lead to the arrest of accused drug peddlers and users.
How have the first few months on the job gone?
It’s gone very well. I’m pleasantly not surprised, but I’m pleased at the level of professionalism at this police department. We have a lot of dedicated people here who not only do their job, but also do a variety of things that are not really their job. There is no “that’s not my job syndrome” here. They pitch in and get the job done. There are no glaring issues that I’ve been able to see. I’m real happy.
Anything unexpected, negative or positive?
The only thing unexpected was there wasn’t another shoe to drop. Usually you don’t really know what is going on in an organization until you sit in this seat for a while, and then all of a sudden they go, “Oh, we didn’t tell you about this, but …” There is none of that. Genuine organization, very genuine city and community here. This city treats its employees very well. I’m very happy with how I’ve been treated. They have made it very comfortable to be here.
What’s the best part of being the chief?
I think the best part of being the chief is, by and large, if you have a city manager who does not micromanage, and Tom Lando does not. He allows me to run this department. The buck stops at my desk. More important than the power to say no, I have the power to say yes. And the power to say yes to some ideas that the people who work in this department have had for some time and were not afraid to go out and try some new things.
How does working in Chico compare to working in Ridgecrest?
Ridgecrest was very small-town. Chico’s different in that I still have the small-town atmosphere here, but it’s a quite a bit bigger. I can move around the community without every single person knowing I’m the chief, although that is getting more widely known. In Ridgecrest there wasn’t anywhere I could go anytime day or night that they didn’t know I was the chief.
Oh, you’ll get to that point here …
Yeah. Actually, I like that, and that is why I like the small town. But people here are very much like the people in Ridgecrest, very nice, very giving, very civic-minded. The differences in the departments are that the Chico Police Department is a full-service department, where Ridgecrest is what I would consider a basic-service police department. They don’t have the budget to allow K-9’s and traffic units and SWAT teams. So we are able to provide the community a much wider variety of police service than a smaller town.
How would you compare Chico to Los Angeles?
There is really no comparison. Los Angeles is broken up into 18 geographic police districts. There is a police station within every district, and it is like a city within a city. I commanded police stations in three different parts of the city: South-Central—two stations in South-Central—the harbor area and East L.A. In those settings, L.A. becomes a small town, because all you deal with is that section of the city. In those settings the station commander is the chief. The community involvement in the community policing and problem solving is pretty much the same.
One of the officers I talked with said you had shown up early one day at a training event and said, “What’s most important here is that you guys make it home at the end of the day to be with your families.” I gather that made a pretty good impression.
That is important. Our officers are going through use-of-force training right now, which is an annual training, and I talked to them about that same concept. That is what is most important, that they go home to their families after their shifts.
I get the feeling that you are getting respect from them because you are a cop first and a politician second. Is that how you see yourself?
Absolutely. I’m a police officer, and I’ve been a police officer now for 32 years. My rank happens to be chief of police, but I have always looked at myself as a street police officer first. I think like a street cop. As a matter of fact, this little black-and-white car here [he indicates a toy car on his desk], when I first made captain in the LAPD, which is a big deal in L.A., one of my detectives came in and said, “OK, Captain, you’re a big shot now,” and he gave me this car, and he said, “Don’t ever forget where you came from.”
I think too many chiefs, too many high-ranking police personnel forget about where they came from, what is important and what our job is. That job is to provide police service to the community, and sometimes we get mixed up in the administration of policing. I don’t consider myself political. I have to be politically astute but politically uninvolved. But there are politics that have to be played, and you have to know who is who in the community and get along with everybody. I don’t take sides.
How do you see this town? You know, it’s pretty politically charged.
Chico has a lot of opinions, and people are not afraid to express them. But that’s what we are about as a country. Freedom of speech is vital, and I’m not afraid of people speaking their piece. I like to have exchanges and ideas from a variety of people because we learn from them and we become better because of that.
I understand you started the Boys & Girls Club in Ridgecrest. Do you see this as an important thing for kids?
Oh yeah. When I took over as chief in Ridgecrest, from my background they knew of my work with the Boys & Girls Club. I’ve been working with them for 15 years, building clubs and boards, and so they asked me to establish a program there, and I’m very proud to say that I was able to do that. It took three and one-half years, but it’s up and running now.
Boys & Girls clubs by all measures are the best delivery system for after-school programming for kids. The reason I believe in them so much is that they have paid, professional staff that has character-building, family-building programs for our kids after school. I don’t believe that kids are born bad. There are kids who do bad things because of circumstances in their environment, and if you can change the environment, you can change the behavior of kids. If you can get to a kid before he gets in that bad environment, you can prevent that child from getting in trouble.
It’s been my experience that when presented with a choice between positive behavior and negative behavior, kids will choose positive behavior almost every time, and when provided an opportunity to continue that positive behavior, they will take it every time. And that’s what Boys & Girls Clubs do for our kids; that is why I devote my personal resources and a lot of my on-duty time to Boys & Girls Clubs. It is putting money at the front end rather than the back end of the juvenile-justice system.
I would rather prevent than capture and punish. When you have to capture and punish, the system has broken down.
So I’m involved here on the board, and I’ve just put together a coalition of heads of law enforcement throughout the county. It’ll be called the Law Enforcement Executive Committee of our Boys and Girls Club here and will be charged with the responsibility of raising funds and to help keep the doors open not only here in Chico, but also in Paradise. And we’re looking to expand into Oroville and possibly Gridley. All the chiefs in the county, our DA, our sheriff, the heads of probation and parole have agreed to be part of this committee, because it is crime prevention.
How are you delegating resources? I’ve heard some downtown business people complain that there is not enough police presence there.
We’ve already made a change in that regard. We did the downtown investigation of the park, and that has produced results that were even beyond my expectations.
We don’t have it within our budget to assign a certain number of officers downtown all the time. So we are making it everybody’s responsibility to go downtown at some part of the day. Detectives will go downtown and walk a foot beat for an hour here or there. Traffic officers will go do that, too. So there will be a kind of revolving, constant presence downtown through the park and the downtown business community. I’ve discussed that philosophy with the DCBA [Downtown Chico Business Association], and I’ve agreed to be a regular member of their board.
We have a responsibility to ensure that we create an atmosphere where people want to come downtown and spend their dollars, because that’s where the taxes come from.
This city lives and dies on taxes, and that’s where the money comes from to pay police salaries and benefits and our cars and our equipment, all that stuff. Not only do we have a responsibility because we are paid police officers, we also have a vested interest in how well downtown does, because as downtown goes so does all of Chico. The officers are learning where their money comes from. They are talking a “this is my downtown” attitude rather than “this is the place I work.”
I’ve heard there’s reluctance on the officers’ part to come downtown. Why would that be?
I don’t know. I haven’t been able to put my finger on that, but I have to say to their credit, since I’ve asked them to do this revolving patrolling downtown, they’ve stepped up to the plate and are doing a great job. Plus they are finding out that, if they go downtown and start talking to a few people, they learn about other crimes around, who is doing what, and it can affect that beat much more.
It was pretty obvious something had to be done in the park. How long in the making was that operation?
That was a three-month operation. We worked with BINTF. Soon after I got here we started looking at how can we affect downtown, and it was in that meeting where we decided we would put in an undercover police officer. It’s an important decision, because to put a police officer undercover is a dangerous operation. We felt it was worth the risk and we could do it safely and effectively, and it was very successful.
You consider that you are dealing with the narcotics community, not only people who are selling drugs, but also many people who are on drugs, not rational people. Many of them carry guns, and that in itself makes it dangerous. Of course, if they don’t trust someone and they think someone is going to hurt them, a lot of times they go to the gun before they do anything else. It is a dangerous operation, one that has to be monitored very closely, but nevertheless is important and necessary.
How long do you see yourself being in this position?
I’m looking at probably a five-year window. I’ve been in the business 32 years now, and I’ll be looking to retire in about five years. But, you know, that is totally open. The decision will come when I lose the fire in my belly to do this job. It’ll eat you up if you’re not enthusiastic about it. That fire is still there, and there are things that I want to do in Chico. This department is an outstanding department, but there is still another level that we can go to.
Please describe for me the riots in the 77th precinct.
It was horrifying. Nobody in our city believed there would be riots again after the ‘65 [Watts] riots. I was the detective commander of the 77th at the time, and I was watching the returns of the trial on television, and as soon as it came back four [officers] not guilty, I knew we were going to have trouble. We put police officers out in the field to monitor what was going on, and it became very obvious very quickly that a riot was about to erupt.
It was very horrifying, and it was awful to feel that the people were so angry that they would ruin their city. I was on duty for 30 hours from when I arrived that day through the night of the riots. I remember getting called to the command post and driving through the streets and seeing nothing but fire as far as you could see. You’d come to an intersection, and as far as you could see in any direction was fire.
When I was released to go home and get some rest, about 9 o’clock the next morning, the riot was still going on. The first thing I did was go to the Boys & Girls Club there—I was the board president—at 54th and Vermont, which was in the heart of one of the most dangerous gang areas in the city. Everything was burning around the club, but the club was untouched. Even gang members respect what goes on at a Boys & Girls Club.