San Luis Obispo police chief finalist is an assistant chief in Mesa, Arizona

The San Luis Obispo police station at Santa Rosa and Walnut streets.
The San Luis Obispo police station at Santa Rosa and Walnut streets. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo is close to having a new police chief.

Deanna Cantrell, an assistant chief in the Mesa Police Department in Mesa, Ariz., has been selected by San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig as the finalist for the position.

Lichtig announced to city staff this week that she has decided to proceed with a background investigation on Cantrell, human resources director Monica Irons said Thursday. A job offer has not been extended and will not be until the background check is complete.

“The city anticipates that the background investigation will conclude by Thanksgiving, continuing us on the path to having a chief in place by year end,” Irons said.

Cantrell, 45, has served with the Mesa Police Department for 21 years and has held many positions, including motor officer, several special operations positions, internal affairs lieutenant and commander, and district commander, according to the department’s website.

As assistant chief of the department’s Administrative Services Bureau, Cantrell oversees the forensics lab, information technology, fiscal management, communications, records and supply. She oversees about 250 to 270 mostly non-sworn employees (the entire department is about 800 sworn officers and 425 civilians) and a budget of about $28 million for her areas.

She has experience working with the city of Mesa on community policing issues, has a master’s degree in administration from Northern Arizona University and extensive law enforcement leadership training. Cantrell also served as past chair of the Mesa Police Diversity Team, a member of the legal redress committee for the East Valley NAACP, and is working in cooperation with the local fire department to launch an academy for primarily minority or underprivileged girls, ages 14 to 17, to learn more about public safety careers.

“I feel super humbled, especially given the field I was up against,” Cantrell said in a phone interview Thursday. She said she was drawn to San Luis Obispo’s efforts to involve community members and stakeholders in solving problems, and talked about some of the challenges she’s seen here: downtown safety, homelessness and town-gown issues with Cal Poly.

She suggested University Police at Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo police could include more information for students on the home pages of their websites about alcohol use and ways to stay out of trouble. In addition, she said more social media monitoring could be useful. In Mesa, police used a social media platform to respond to student concerns during a mass shooting incident in March, she said.

Cantrell said she supports the use of body cameras, which are being tested in a pilot program in San Luis Obispo. In the first year after cameras were deployed in 2012 in Mesa, she said, the department saw a 75 percent reduction in use of force and a 40 percent reduction in complaints.

“It changes not only the officers’ behavior, but citizens’ behavior toward us,” she said. “They see it, and they’re better and we’re better.”

If she becomes the next chief, Cantrell said she plans to listen, learn and forge relationships across the community.

“It’s a community, and people have to talk and watch out for each other, but the police department has to be the glue that holds it together and brings everyone together,” Cantrell said. “Here’s the truth: you can’t build a bridge when you need it. You have to build that bridge before.”

San Luis Obispo has not had a permanent police chief since the abrupt departure of former Chief Steve Gesell in May, a few weeks after he was placed on paid administrative leave.

In the interim, Capt. Chris Staley, who supervises the department’s Operations Bureau, and Administrative Services Bureau Capt. Keith Storton, took turns serving as acting chief. Both applied for the chief position.

The city contracted with Roberts Consulting Group, a Beverly Hills-based recruitment firm, to find candidates for the job. The firm returned with a list of about a dozen recommended candidates, Irons said, which was narrowed down to five individuals who went through an interview process Oct. 22-23. Those five people included external and internal candidates, Irons said.

Panel interviews were conducted with various groups: police or public safety chiefs, department heads and community stakeholders. Candidates also met with the police officers association.

At the end of the day, Lichtig narrowed the field to three candidates — Cantrell, Staley and Storton — who were invited back Oct. 24 for one-on-one interviews with Lichtig, Irons, Assistant City Manager Derek Johnson and a panel of non-represented Police Department employees.

Lichtig received feedback directly from the groups and deliberated for more than a week before announcing Wednesday to staff that she had selected Cantrell. Once the background check is complete, a conditional job offer could be extended, which is conditioned on passing a medical and psychological evaluation, Irons said.

The salary range for the police chief position is set at $12,324 to $15,405 a month, according to the city’s salary schedule, or $147,888 to $184,860 a year. Gesell’s annual salary in June 2014 was $160,394, with a total compensation of $264,163.

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO