Steve Gesell, SLO police chief, placed on administrative leave

San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell
San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell Courtesy photo

San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell was placed on paid administrative leave Friday, signaling a possible end to his more than three-year tenure with the city.

City Manager Katie Lichtig confirmed Friday afternoon that Gesell, who was hired in 2012, was placed on paid administrative leave for an indeterminate amount of time. Police Capt. Chris Staley will serve as acting chief until further notice.

Lichtig declined to give a reason for putting Gesell on leave or to release any other information Friday.

As a department head, Gesell was appointed by and can be removed by the city manager.

City Council members Dan Carpenter and Carlyn Christianson declined to comment Friday; the other council members did not return calls for comment. Gesell also declined to comment.

Earlier this year, Gesell came under scrutiny for the amount of work-related travel he undertook in 2014 — and had been asked to repay the city for some of the cost.

He also provoked controversy in December when he wrote an opinion piece published in The Tribune regarding the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Mo. Some residents said they felt Gesell’s view was biased, condescending and out of touch.

More recently, some community members have questioned police response to an early-morning “St. Fratty’s Day” party in March that was attended by several thousand Cal Poly students and ended with a roof collapse injuring at least eight people. Gesell said at the time that his department was caught off guard that morning and had only five officers on duty, with officer shifts rearranged to prepare for parties that evening, based on “loose information” from university police. 

Last year, Gesell attended three times as many conferences, meetings and workshops as any other police chief in the county, and he incurred several thousand dollars more in costs to San Luis Obispo — though he traveled with the support of the city manager.

Gesell’s 13 trips totaled $7,864 after various reimbursements to the city, including $3,084 from Police Officer Standards and Training, a professional law enforcement organization that provides grants for police departments for officer training, according to documents provided by the city.

The trips prompted city officials to draft changes to their travel policy to include more oversight. The 2006 travel policy allowed department heads or their staff to approve their own travel expenses.

City officials also determined that Gesell owed the city $146 for personal spending incorrectly included on receipts he submitted for reimbursement.

Lichtig told The Tribune in February that she encourages department heads to participate in professional development opportunities to inform the city of best practices and to give it a presence outside of its borders.

Although council members did not comment on Gesell’s situation Friday, several expressed support earlier this year.

Christianson said she had concerns that Gesell’s opinion piece wasn’t written as clearly as it could have been, but she said she was impressed with the gains Gesell had made on neighborhood wellness and homelessness issues.

Councilman John Ashbaugh shared similar thoughts.

“Steve has done a great deal in my opinion to build a relationship downtown; he introduced the idea of neighborhood patrol areas,” Ashbaugh said.

At the time, none said they had major concerns or thought the chief’s job was in danger.

“I think he’s done an outstanding job, especially dealing with transients downtown and putting more bicycle patrols downtown,” Mayor Jan Marx said in January. “There’s a feeling overall that he’s been doing a really solid job.”

Gesell, who was raised primarily in San Luis Obispo, served 20 years in Arizona with the Scottsdale Police Department, rising to division commander.

He joined the Atascadero Police Department in 2009 as a commander and served as interim police chief for most of 2011 before his selection as San Luis Obispo’s chief in January 2012.

Gesell’s starting base salary was $157,508 to oversee a staff of more than

80 people and a budget of $15.3 million. His annual salary in June 2014 was $160,394, with a total compensation of $264,163, according to the city website.

In 2012, Gesell said the job met a personal goal he had for more than eight years to return to the city.

“I knew that if I could finish my career in San Luis Obispo, it would be the answer to all my dreams,” he said.

In the past three years with the city, Gesell has tried to increase community interaction with the Police Department and tried to find ways to address problems — including aggressive panhandling, loitering and assaults — related to a growing number of homeless people in the city.

He’s taken part in several initiatives to address concerns, including coordinating a multi-agency effort to limit the impacts of repeat offenders on the community but also to find help for those who are willing.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune