Lisa Solomon: Paso Robles police chief under fire

In the five years since Lisa Solomon became Paso Robles’ police chief, the crime rate has dropped and response times to major emergencies have remained steady during budget cuts that have left her department with a third fewer officers.

But her tenure has also been marked by a series of high-profile problems:

In 2008, her loaded gun was stolen from her unlocked car.

Last September, a rise in gang-related crime prompted the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies to step in to help the department — an unusual move.

And last week, a lawsuit was filed against the city by an officer alleging Solomon and other department managers required officers to meet illegal ticket quotas. The chief also faces a formal complaint by a former officer who alleges she sexually harassed him.

Such issues raise the question: Can Solomon effectively lead the department?

The Tribune asked about two dozen residents, business owners and people in law enforcement that question, granting anonymity to two who didn’t want to be publicly associated with the politically charged issues involving Solomon.

To her supporters, Solomon is a perceptive manager able to see issues in new ways, a leader who has done her best to maintain staffing during a tough recession and who gets high marks for strong community involvement and support of local causes and groups. But to detractors, she has not acted with urgency to deal with gangs, and she allowed the number of sworn officers on the force to drop precipitously.

For her part, Solomon believes she can remain an effective leader.

“I’m coming in every day and leading the organization as I always have,” she said. “I’m very strong on my focus and my vision for this community, and I will not have any problems executing that.”

Solomon’s career

Solomon, 43, began her law enforcement career with the Pismo Beach Police Department as a dispatcher in 1986, when she was 18.

Two years later, she was hired by the Paso Robles Police Department as its first female officer. She has been there ever since.

Solomon graduated from Allan Hancock College Police Academy in 1988 and holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from the University of La Verne, among other training.

After being named the department’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) officer working with schools, she moved up the ranks to detective, sergeant, lieutenant and captain.

One law enforcement official in the county described Solomon as a bright individual who “brings fresh perspective” to ideas and makes “phenomenal observations and points that other people don’t see.”

As a police captain, Solomon became what former police Chief Dennis Cassidy in 2007 called his “right-hand man,” taking on responsibilities such as managing the budget. She was named chief within two weeks of Cassidy’s retirement that same year.

“She was the clear obvious successor based on her contributions to Paso Robles public safety,” City Manager Jim App said.

Cassidy, who declined numerous requests to comment on this story, recommended her promotion to App. The City Council unanimously backed the decision. The Paso Robles Police Officers Association at the time also affirmed the move.

Solomon receives $235,100 in total annual compensation including benefits, bringing it just under App’s $236,958 total annual compensation.

Community involvement

In terms of community involvement, Solomon has served on boards with the North County Women’s Shelter and North County YMCA.

Barbara Partridge, the city’s former longtime library and recreation director, said she met Solomon 20 years ago when Solomon was raising funds for anti-drug campaigns. Since then, Solomon has always been first to raise her hand when the city needed help, Partridge said. For example, Solomon is often asked to sing at local events — something that is not unusual for the city’s small-town culture.

“I think in Paso Robles, we’ve always had our police and fire departments involved and out in the community and making connections,” said Dee Lacey, longtime North County rancher and volunteer. “I’ve worked on committees that she may not be involved in, but people still know Chief Solomon will help us solve any problem.”

Staffing amid budget cuts

As Solomon took the helm, the economy took a dive.

The city instituted a hiring freeze in 2007 and began spending cuts to address multimillion-dollar shortfalls as revenue from the city’s sales tax and other public fees declined. Since then, the city government work force has dropped 35 percent.

Given the city’s 29,800 population, the council’s goal is to operate the Police Department with 46 full-time sworn officers. There were 40 when Solomon became chief; that fell to 27 last year. Three new officers have been hired since, keeping the number at 27 as some left the department. Solomon has been authorized to increase staffing to 31 officers. One hire is pending.

Since January 2007, 23 officers have left the department. Of those, 22 departures were voluntary and one was involuntary. The city declined to give specifics, citing personnel laws. Solomon said most of those departures were early retirements and resignations.

The Police Department’s annual operating budget is $8.3 million, down from $10.1 million in 2009. The budget was $8.7 million when Solomon took over in 2007.

“As people disappeared, the memo came privately from Lisa saying, ‘Here are the things we’ve had to sacrifice.’ And she made us aware of it,” Councilman Nick Gilman said.

Despite the staff cuts, the crime rate has dropped 11.7 percent since Solomon became chief, from 34.9 crimes per 1,000 citizens to 30.8, according to city figures detailing eight categories of major crimes such as murder, rape and robbery.

Many in the community said Solomon has managed the best she could with what she was given and that App and the City Council should be held accountable for letting the police force dwindle so severely.

The city is operating under a plan that seeks to avoid layoffs, and none has occurred.

Solomon gave App a contingency plan four years ago, noting that she believed 29 sworn officers was the minimum level at which the department could function.

“And now we’re at that point,” App said.

The force generally fields about four patrol officers each shift.

“Obviously the community is concerned about public safety, but we have allowed police to replace four officers and no other department has been able to backfill their staff,” Mayor Duane Picanco said.

Picanco nonetheless supported the hiring freeze and pointed out that the council will hear from the public at a workshop Saturday on what services they want rebuilt as the city emerges from the economic downturn.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said Paso Robles’ need for more staffing limited the department, specifically in gang prevention.

“You could be the best of the best in leadership,” he said. “But if you don’t have resources to deal with the problem, then you can’t do it alone.”

Solomon has set priorities — maintaining patrol duties, for example — by pulling almost all of her department’s officers away from other programs. Two that lost an officer were the D.A.R.E. program and the Housing Authority.

For major crimes such as rapes and robberies, the department has kept an average response time of 4 minutes, 12 seconds, from the moment dispatch calls an officer to the time that person arrives on the scene.

But officers no longer respond to noninjury traffic collisions, and there are longer waits for victims of lesser crimes.

Solomon moved the D.A.R.E. officer and north-end officer back into the patrol division.

The north-end officer worked the area of 24th Street north to Highway 101, one of the main areas where gang members are active.

“To be honest, I questioned that decision at the time, and the response I received was compelling in that there were other areas of Paso Robles in greater need of the thin police coverage we had available,” Housing Authority Director Armando Corella said of the decision to nix the officer. “I do think the north end of Paso Robles is an area not to be ignored for long, and I do think the officers know that because they are excellent at responding to this area when we need them, even though we sometimes have to wait.”

Others in the community began to take notice, too.

“Paso Robles is still somewhat safe, although I don’t feel protected by the Police Department because they keep saying they don’t have the manpower,” one downtown business owner said, pointing out she has never been involved in a major emergency.

One of those working in the city’s northern area is longtime Paso Robles pastor Ruben Tate of Second Baptist Church. When asked for his thoughts about Solomon’s leadership, he said, “I have nothing but respect for her.”

“I think they’re doing everything they can with the budgets they have,” he said.

However, he also thinks the city ignored its gangs.

“It’s like not putting a traffic light up; it’s not an issue until somebody gets killed and it’s sad, but we don’t deal with it until it’s right in front of us,” he said.

Challenges develop

The rise in the city’s gang violence hit home last year.

“The people who are (committing crimes) aren’t stupid and can see that the resources dwindle and see it’s easier to come into town and get a stronger hold on the community,” said former City Councilman Gary Nemeth, who lost bids for mayor in 2008 and 2010.

Gang-related crimes last year included an attempted murder, a drive-by shooting that injured one person and a shooting at a Spring Street apartment complex. Incidents in San Miguel and Atascadero also added to the growing concern, Parkinson said.

“It was a concern for me that if she doesn’t have the staff to be able to (fight gangs), they would continue to grow, particularly in the Shandon and San Miguel area,” coverage areas for which his office is responsible, he said.

Parkinson offered to help in what he describes as the largest local joint-agency gang sweep in recent memory.

The Sheriff’s Office, the city, probation, parole and other agencies sent 20 personnel to Paso Robles — which Parkinson described as the epicenter of the violence — for four weekends in September to serve arrest warrants, issue citations and make their presence known. They identified almost 30 known or potential gang members, made 65 arrests, issued 48 tickets and made 312 traffic stops, according to the sheriff.

“We went from obviously a significant number of incidents in North County to relatively nothing reported of significance,” he said.

Solomon does not plan to devote an officer to gang prevention with the current new hires, citing ongoing budget pressures. Rather, she plans to get one when money is available. Specifically, Solomon hopes to create two new officer positions to proactively work on narcotics and gangs in the city, something the council will consider Saturday. Solomon declined to detail her plans until she presents them to the council.

Another problem Solomon has faced during her time as chief, she conceded, was of her own doing. In 2008, her personal unregistered .380-caliber handgun, which was loaded, was stolen from the center console of her unlocked, unmarked police vehicle while it was parked at her Paso Robles home.

App at the time agreed that Solomon made an error in judgment in not locking her car but didn’t discipline her. It was App’s opinion that Solomon’s two decades of positive service to the city “outweighed this one mistake,” he said then.

Solomon admitted the error, saying it was “a big mistake. And I own up to that.”

Allegations by officers

More recently, Solomon has been hit with a sexual harassment complaint by former Officer Brennan Lux. He told The Tribune he’s alleging inappropriate sexual contact by Solomon in a formal complaint he filed with the city. Lux was fired in November for reasons he declined to disclose.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed by Officer Jon Tatro alleging that Solomon expected him to meet an illegal quota of traffic tickets. Tatro, president of the Paso Robles Police Officers Association, alleged the department was engaged in workplace retaliation because he was not writing enough traffic citations. He also accused senior leaders in the department of hindering his career development.

The city manager and Solomon have declined to comment on the issues, citing personnel laws and the existence of the litigation.

Attorney Debra Estrin of San Francisco was hired by the city’s attorney to investigate the sexual harassment allegation, according to Officer T.J. McCall, who was interviewed by her, and another officer who asked to remain anonymous because of the delicate nature of the case.

Estrin was hired Nov. 30 as a consultant and is to be paid $150 an hour plus expenses, according to her contract.