San Luis Obispo police Chief Deb Linden ends a 27-year career in law enforcement Wednesday with no regrets, but memories of the tragedies she experienced along the way will stay with her.
The most moving moments of her time in San Luis Obispo are shrouded in sadness: the sudden death last year of Fire Department Chief John Callahan, a close personal friend; a 2007 case where a man murdered his wife and his 7-year-old daughter before killing himself; the recent case when a mentally ill man allegedly shot and killed his own mother.
“Those are the moments that have been the most poignant for me,” Linden said. “The tragic events never leave you.”
Linden, 50, says the best moments were watching the colleagues she worked with throughout the years succeed.
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“To see the people I have hired succeed and being able to open a door along the way to help them do that is what I am the most proud of,” Linden said. “I never dreamed when I was 22 that I would be able to do this, and I was able to do it with people nudging me along the way and extending opportunities for me.”
Patrol officer to chief
Linden left an 18-year career with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department — as the highest-ranking woman there — to lead the San Luis Obispo Police Department in 2003.
When she was hired, she was only the sixth female police chief in all of California’s 328 municipal departments.
In Santa Barbara County, she rose through the ranks from patrol to a narcotics detective to eventually running the department’s financial services division.
During her tenure there, she worked on a number of high-profile cases, including a two-year assignment with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration division in Carlsbad targeting a major marijuana-smuggling operation.
In 1997, she assisted the Los Angeles Police Department when pop icon Michael Jackson was accused of molesting a young house guest at his ranch near Santa Ynez. Her role in the investigation led her to the Philippines to interview two of his former employees.
“You just can’t make that stuff up,” Linden said. “I’ve put people in prison that so needed to be there and continue to need to be there. What more can you ask for in a career?”
Dealing with parties
Linden’s mission at the onset in San Luis Obispo was to find strategies to reduce underage and binge drinking and curb disruptive partying in local neighborhoods.
She has been commended by community leaders for setting the city on a clear path to managing those issues, and she’s been criticized by a few for putting too much of a damper on what some consider college-town fun.
“When I came into the job, the tension was high among students and the Police Department,” Linden said. “I tried to take a longer-term strategic approach to and involve students in that process. I believe strongly in a no-surprises approach to things.”
Linden is resolute that new laws put into place, including tripling fines on known party holidays such as Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween, do not go too far.
“I think they are still having plenty of fun,” Linden said with a raised eye and a chuckle. “What we are trying to get at is when the fun goes too far and people get hurt.”
Only a year into her job, Linden faced the ramifications of a Mardi Gras party that turned into a riot when a crowd of about 5,000 threw rocks and bottles at police.
Nearly 200 people were arrested. The next year, with stepped-up enforcement at the end of the annual Mardi Gras parade, arrests dropped to 91, and by 2010 they had dropped further to 43.
Since the riot, more laws targeting excessive noise, partying and drinking have been passed, leading to a decline in violations involving open containers, noise and urinating in public.
Linden is also steadfast that no other safety issues went ignored in order to focus on those polices.
“There was no tradeoff — nothing has gone by the wayside,” Linden said. “That is what we do. We handle all kinds of issues and problems on a daily basis and longer-term.”
Time for a change
Her successor’s biggest challenge will be continuing those strategies and doing more with fewer resources.
In the past nine years, the number of sworn officers has dropped to 57 from 61, and the number of nonsworn full-time equivalent employees to 26.5 from 29. That does not include the positions that remain unfilled while the city deals with shrinking revenues because of the slowed economy.
“The fiscal challenges facing the city are very real,” Linden said. “We’ve been finding ways to reduce the budget since I walked through the door. And it’s just going to keep getting harder.”
The new chief will also play a critical role in mending the relationship between police employees and the city’s management after a special election overturned the binding arbitration clause won by safety unions a decade ago. Negotiations to reduce employee pay and benefits are still under way.
Linden said her decision to retire was not because of the looming challenges but simply because it is time to slow down a bit.
“I preach to my people that they have to have balance in life and focus on their personal lives, too,” Linden said. “The truth is I am terrible at that. I’m an all-in type of person, and couple that with being a police chief and it is all-in on steroids. Retiring is the recognition that I need to switch gears.”
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.