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Former SLO police Chief Steve Gesell named police chief in Cottonwood, Arizona

Former San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell has been hired as the police chief for the Cottonwood Police Department in Arizona.
Former San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell has been hired as the police chief for the Cottonwood Police Department in Arizona. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Steve Gesell, former police chief in San Luis Obispo who left abruptly in May after being placed on administrative leave, has been chosen as the new police chief in Cottonwood, Ariz. The city of about 12,000 people is 100 miles north of Phoenix.

According to a Cottonwood city news release, Gesell was hired because he would bring “a wealth of experience and knowledge to the position.” It cited his more than 20 years of experience with the Scottsdale Police Department, where he left as a commander to join the Atascadero Police Department as commander in 2009. He became San Luis Obispo police chief in 2012.

“I am well aware of Steve’s qualifications and experience as we worked together in Scottsdale,” Cottonwood City Manager Doug Bartosh said in the news release. “He brings to Cottonwood a strong set of skills that will benefit our community and further improve the services provided by the police department. I was most impressed with his ability to partner with citizens and businesses to resolve challenges that helped to improve the community.”

In an email to The Tribune on Saturday, Gesell said he was looking forward to moving back to Arizona, and working with Bartosh again.

“It’s no secret that there is a political element to the role of a police chief, creating a precarious existence,” he wrote. “It’s reassuring to know I will join another high-performing organization and serve a wonderful community. I’m also excited to work under leadership that places a high value on the public’s safety and doing what’s right for the right reasons.”

The city of San Luis Obispo has never explained why Gesell was placed on leave, citing personnel confidentiality laws.

In his Cottonwood application — which was included in an agenda packet for the Cottonwood City Council’s Dec. 24 special meeting to hire him — Gesell stated that his departure was “due to significant philosophical differences surrounding public safety and the role of the police chief.”

Gesell claimed disagreements arose between himself and city management after he was dissuaded from buying an armored vehicle for the regional SWAT team, from firing an officer he said repeatedly lied to supervisors and an internal affairs investigator and because the city asked him to limit media releases regarding crimes of public interest, among other complaints. Gesell declined to comment on his application Saturday.

San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig also declined to comment on Gesell’s application claims.

“At the end of the day, the philosophies between the city and Steve were fundamentally different,” she said. “I wish him and his family well in his new employment.”

After his departure, Gesell reached a settlement agreement with the city that provided him with a lump sum severance of $120,000. He has since been replaced by Chief Deanna Cantrell, who is scheduled to start her duties Monday.

Gesell’s annual salary in Cottonwood will be $115,000. While working for the city of San Luis Obispo, his salary was $160,394 in June 2014, with total compensation including benefits of $264,163.

His first day on the new job is expected to be Jan. 20.

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