SLO police chief search down to 4 finalists

The search for a new police chief in San Luis Obispo has been narrowed to four finalists.

San Luis Obispo officials say they expect to make a decision in the next few weeks and are confident that the person selected will be a good match for the community.

More than 60 candidates from across the country applied for the job following the July announcement by Police Chief Deborah Linden that she planned to retire at year’s end after nine years with the department. Her last day is Dec. 21.

The six front runners were brought to San Luis Obispo and interviewed over a three-day period by several panels consisting of community members, city department heads, council members, employees and past and present city managers and police chiefs selected by City Manager Katie Lichtig.

That process narrowed the candidates to the four being considered. Lichtig would not release the names of the finalists, but she said that all come from larger agencies than San Luis Obispo and have experience serving in communities with similar demographics.

No one applied from within the San Luis Obispo Police Department, which has 57 sworn officers and 26.5 nonsworn staff, she said.

The annual salary range for the police chief is $128,310 to $160,394. Linden earns $160,394 in salary and an additional $73,821 in benefits. She is the second highest-paid employee in the city. Mayor Jan Marx, who is serving on the selection committee, said she is certain “an excellent police chief is in the mix.”

The new leader should be an “honest, moral person, a good communicator, respectful to all kinds of people and adept at working with college-aged people,” Marx said. “I am looking for someone who is going to become a part of our community — someone who is not only enforcement-oriented but community-oriented.”

Challenges facing the new chief will include boosting employee morale in the face of budget cuts when workers are being forced to do more while earning less, Lichtig said.

“Motivating employees who are in a situation where they are bringing home less pay and benefits definitely has the potential of negatively impacting morale,” Lichtig said. “The next chief’s leadership capacity will play a role in being a bridge between employees, unions and the community.”

The rift between the police union and the city over the recent repeal of binding arbitration will also be a factor.

“It will take time and perseverance and hard work for everyone to overcome,” Marx said. “But I am convinced that we will arrive at a more positive set of relationships in the future.”

The next chief must also continue with the implementation of a multitude of ordinances and procedures left by Linden to crack down on out-of-control partying and alcohol-related issues in the downtown and surrounding areas.

During her tenure, Linden squashed disorderly revelry during Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day throughout the city.

The effort began in 2004 after a Mardi Gras celebration turned into a riot when a crowd of about 5,000 threw rocks and bottles at police. Nearly 200 people were arrested.Since then, additional laws targeting excessive noise, partying and drinking have been implemented, leading to a decline in violations such as open containers, noise and urinating in public.

“The continued implementation will be a big challenge,” Marx said. “The problems associated with parties in the neighborhoods and alcohol abuse in the downtown are not going to just evaporate overnight.”

Marx said she is also concerned about a seemingly growing gang presence in the county.“The gang presence to our north, south and east is something we pretty much have been able to fend off so far, but now the county’s gang task force funding has been eliminated and countywide there are fewer officers to do the job.”

The police chief will be the sixth of nine department heads appointed by Lichtig since she was hired by the City Council in 2010.