Next SLO police chief may be from Atascadero force

Atascadero police Cmdr. Stephen Gesell is the top candidate of two finalists for police chief in San Luis Obispo, The Tribune has learned.

Gesell, 45, who was raised in San Luis Obispo, has a long history of working in law enforcement. That service includes 10 months as acting chief of police for the Atascadero Police Department after the sudden resignation of Chief Jim Mulhall in January.

Gesell served 20 years in Arizona with the Scottsdale Police Department, rising to division commander, before joining the Atascadero Police Department in 2009.

In Scottsdale, Gesell oversaw the Special Operations Division, which included 100 employees in patrol, traffic enforcement and detention.

He was responsible for a $4.6 million operating budget and participated in the department’s strategic planning. Gesell was also directly involved in addressing community problems in Scottsdale’s downtown area.

San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig, who will make the final decision, said she anticipates offering the job to Gesell by the end of the week.

“Steve’s reputation is stellar, he has incredible experience and a standard of excellence that has permeated his career,” Lichtig said. “He is absolutely passionate about serving San Luis Obispo and will prove to be a huge asset to our community.”

Lichtig said Gesell’s breadth of experience, sophistication and implementation of best practices is what put him at the top of the search.

Gesell has a bachelor’s degree in justice studies from Arizona State University and a master’s in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University.

The final background check is nearly complete, Lichtig said, and once that is done, an offer will be made, contingent on Gesell passing both a psychological and physical exam.

Gesell said he has long made it his goal to return to his hometown.

Gesell said his roots to the area led him to seek the job.

“It would absolutely be a dream come true,” he said.

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

No one applied from within the San Luis Obispo Police Department, which has 57 sworn officers and a full-time equivalent of 26.5 nonsworn staff. The department’s budget is $15 million.

The annual salary range for the police chief is $128,310 to $160,394. Linden, whose last day is Dec. 21, earns $160,394 in salary and an additional $73,821 in benefits. She is the second highest-paid employee in the city, behind Lichtig.

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