In his corner office at the Grover Beach Police Department building, which is adorned with paintings of horses, a decorative set of steer horns and San Francisco Giants and 49ers memorabilia, Chief Jim Copsey deflected yet another opportunity to talk about his accomplishments.
“It’s not about me,” Copsey said. “We’ve been able to do what we have in this department because of the real team of professionals we’ve built here.”
Copsey, the longest-serving police chief currently in office in San Luis Obispo County, is hanging up the spurs in December, after breaking the news of his upcoming retirement earlier this month. The city has not yet announced its plans for recruiting Copsey’s replacement.
Copsey has managed a police department with the smallest budget in the county and has consistently worked within that budget without shaving back services since he came to the city as police chief in 2005.
His arrival followed more than two years as police chief in King City after beginning his career as a patrol officer in Monterey. His retirement will cap more than 27 years in law enforcement.
Grover Beach, a city of about 13,000 without the tourism appeal of neighboring coastal cities, is a bedroom community, Copsey said, offering affordable homes to residents who largely work in surrounding areas.
A majority of local crime is non-violent, he said, and usually related to domestic matters or quality-of-life issues such as loitering.
What the department calls “vagrant issues” remain problematic for some residents.
In April, Copsey hosted a community forum at Ramona Garden Park to talk to stakeholders about increased complaints of illegal activity in the park by neighboring residents and business owners.
Copsey said that the park will continue to be an area of focus for officers, as City Council members consider redrafting city ordinances and whether to allow volunteers of the South County People’s Kitchen to continue to provide free meals in the park.
Copsey said working with other city and county agencies toward gang membership prevention and addressing substance abuse issues is another long-term priority for the department.
The city has also had its share of violent crime. Copsey oversaw the police response to a homicide in 2006 and an attempted murder in 2012 that required deployment of SWAT officers and ended in the suicide of the suspect.
Although a harrowing experience, Copsey said, a tsunami warning leading to the activation of the city’s emergency operations center in 2011 turned out to be an invaluable training exercise.
“It was a good experience and showed how even a small event can ultimately affect the entire community,” he said. “That was unique in that our department was able to practice handling a possible emergency situation in real time.”
Asked what he was most proud of during his tenure as police chief, Copsey said unequivocally it was hiring and working with his staff.
“It’s not about what I’ve accomplished, but what the whole team has. I can’t do anything without a good team,” he said. “We’ve gone through numerous staffing shortages, and you wouldn’t believe the work our officers and staff do to be creative and manage what we’ve got.”
The police department’s annual budget is only $3.5 million, Copsey said.
The department has two frozen full-time positions and one vacancy it’s not currently filling, leaving it with 12 full-time officers to work the streets, as well as one detective and three non-sworn administrators.
The next person to fill the chief post will need to continue good relations with neighboring Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande police departments, the county Sheriff’s Office and the CHP, as well as with Five Cities Fire Authority, Copsey said.
He added that relations between the city and the Grover Beach Police Officers' Association have remained positive despite four years without pay increases, further reductions due to furloughs and base salaries already among the lowest in local law enforcement.
“We have to remember that we’re here to serve the community, not to get rich,” Copsey said. “And (staff has) really stepped up to the plate. They’ve given for four years and have been willing to work under conditions many others wouldn’t.”
In November, Copsey agreed to take on additional responsibilities as assistant city manager, a move unanimously approved by the City Council. In 2013, he briefly took over as acting city manager while City Manager Bob Perrault recovered from an extended illness.
Perrault previously said he doesn’t plan to have Copsey’s successor both as police chief and assistant city manager, nor does he expect to hire for an assistant position.
When he steps down on Dec. 26, Copsey said he looks forward in the near future to staying in the county with his wife, a local teacher, and will likely be a regular sight on local bike trails.