Paso Robles chief Nelson brought law, order to Pioneer Day

June 7, 2012 

We Paso Roblans have talked a lot lately about police chiefs. We’ve thoroughly discussed our last chief’s recent embarrassing departure. We’ve also specified what sort of chief we want next.

I have nothing to add on either subject. But I can tell you about a past chief whom you may have forgotten. John Nelson was hired as Paso Robles police chief in January 1985. He also witnessed his first Paso Robles Pioneer Day that year, and thoroughly criticized it.

He was a 41-year-old captain for the Montclair Police Department when Paso Robles hired him as police chief. His first Paso Robles Pioneer Day was that Oct. 12. It was the city’s 55th annual Pioneer Day.

Back then almost all Paso Robles businesses closed for Pioneer Day. Not just locally owned businesses, but also J.C. Penney, Safeway, Lucky, Kmart, Williams Bros. grocery stores and J.J. Newberry. All that remained open were a few small outlying stores, some service stations, some restaurants and liquor stores and saloons.

Chief Nelson spoke at the City Council meeting the next month. He said there was too much drinking on Pioneer Day. He said his department made 400 percent more arrests than on normal Saturdays, including 600 percent more alcohol-related arrests.

He said they also got 800 percent more calls about alcohol-related problems and issued 266 percent more traffic citations. There were five traffic collisions including two with injuries. The one with the most serious injuries was caused by alcohol.

Much of the trouble, he said, was caused by people who were in parking lots along the parade route and then, after the parade, stayed there drinking. His department got complaints about drunks verbally abusing passers-by and littering the area with trash and bottles.

But the council members didn’t chastise the new chief for criticizing the city’s traditional celebration. No, they agreed with him, and eventually passed a city ordinance outlawing the drinking of alcoholic beverages on sidewalks and in other public places.

The ordinance does, however, allow such organizations as the Pioneer Day Committee to get one-day permits for drinking beer or wine in specified parks. But no more rowdy tailgate parties.

Two years later, with the public-drinking ban in force, Chief Nelson reported that the drinking on Pioneer Day was minimal. He said men told him they no longer worried about bringing their wives and children to Pioneer Day.

Nelson served as Paso Robles police chief for more than 11 years.

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