“I’m not coming in with any preconceived notions about, ‘I’m gonna do this,'” says Reno’s new police chief, Michael Poehlman.
Poehlman has been in law enforcement since 1971 and served for the last 10 years as the chief of police of Oceanside, Calif. Still, he wants to make it clear that he doesn’t intend to arbitrarily slap his policies from Oceanside onto the Reno Police Department.
On City Manager Charles McNeely’s recommendation, Poehlman was unanimously confirmed by the Reno City Council as Reno’s new police chief, a position Poehlman took on March 14. His confirmation, though unanimous, was still somewhat controversial since Poehlman edged out popular deputy chief Ondra Berry.
“It had to be the toughest decision I’ve made,” McNeely said of his decision to choose Poehlman over Berry.
Now that Poehlman has the job, he says his first priority is to improve the Reno Police Department infrastructure. “The current facilities are old,” he says.
Part of this infrastructure change will involve working with city officials on a plan to decentralize RPD by building three new substations.
“Bringing that about will be good for the community and the officers who work there,” says Poehlman.
Such neighborhood substations are thought by some to foster better relationships between citizens and police. Poehlman considers fostering a good relationship between the police and citizens, even one-on-one relationships, an important goal.
One way of reaching out to the community used during Poehlman’s Oceanside tenure was police officer trading cards. These cards feature biographical information and photos of officers in action—Officer Walter McWilson leaping over a split rail fence—or at ease—Officer Pete Munoz posing with his K-9 partner, a Belgian Malinois named Tiko.
“Kids would come up to the cars and say ‘Hey, do you have any trading cards?'” Poehlman says.
It’s a technique that has been used by the Sparks Police Department but not by Reno.
The trading cards, which were intended to help facilitate relationships between police officers and the children of Oceanside, illustrate a point Poehlman often comes back to—that he intends to maintain an open dialogue and a cooperative relationship with Renoites. He says it’s important that “the citizens … know that the Police Department of Reno is truly part of the community.”
Weighing heavily in his decision to recommend Poehlman, McNeely says, was Poehlman’s dedication to diversity. While McNeely didn’t point to any specific Oceanside policies that impressed him, he interviewed minority leaders who spoke highly of Poehlman.
“We talked to one councilman [Rock Chavez] who happened to be Hispanic,” McNeely said. “He was very appreciative and said nothing but good things about Mike.”
Poehlman was also recommended to McNeely by Oceanside pastor Gerald Johnson, a vice president of the North County NAACP and a police chaplain. Johnson heads the Ten Point Coalition, a collaborative anti-gang effort between trained church volunteers and the police force. Their motto is “saving children from the soul up.”
When asked about diversity, Poehlman again stressed community outreach. Diversity is about “find[ing] a consensus,” he said, adding, “you reach out to all segments of the community, and you recruit from all segments of the community.”
However, Poehlman said, having a diverse police force should never come at the cost of high standards.
“To be a law enforcement officer you have to be qualified, and you can never cut back on those qualifications,” he said. “In Oceanside, you have to be the top of the top to join the organization.”
The Oceanside Police Department’s hiring policies include requiring all police officers to have at least an associate’s degree. The Reno Police Department requires only a high school diploma.
“No other agency in San Diego County had an AA requirement,” says Poehlman.
Some critics saw some of Poehlman’s policies as excessive. The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Sgt. John Anderson, of the Oceanside Police Association, as saying Poehlman’s policies and training procedures, designed to combat sexual harassment, have sometimes created an unpleasant work environment and led to drops in officer morale. “It’s too strict,” he told the newspaper.
But the article also noted that the numbers of citizen complaints and sexual-harassment allegations dropped significantly under Poehlman.