Police chief draws raves for his first year in Modesto

01/24/2014 3:19 PM

01/24/2014 11:33 PM

Just days after his teenage son had been stabbed to death in east Modesto’s Creekwood Park, Carlos Serrano had an unexpected visitor at his door – Police Chief Galen Carroll.

Carroll spent nearly two hours talking with Serrano about his 18-year-old son, Tylor Crippen, whose senseless slaying shocked the city. Serrano said he was deeply touched that Carroll, who had been chief for three weeks, would find the time to meet with him and could understand his sorrow and grief.

“He leads with his heart and compassion,” Serrano said. “He gives hope when hope is gone.”

This was among the first actions Carroll, 43, took during his first year leading the Modesto Police Department and its roughly 300 employees.

He came to Modesto after about 18 years with the Long Beach Police Department, where he rose to the rank of commander. Carroll replaced Mike Harden, a popular chief who retired after 28 years with the department. Carroll is paid $177,632.

He has drawn praise from inside and outside the department, from the presidents of the department’s three employee associations and City Manager Greg Nyhoff and Mayor Garrad Marsh to the president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“He wants to be involved in anything with the community,” NAACP Modesto-Stanislaus Branch President Frank Johnson said. “His open door is really more into the community.”

“He treats everyone fairly and with respect,” said Lt. Clint Raymer, president of Modesto Police Management Association, which represents 35 sergeants and lieutenants. “... There are some challenges (for the department) and he’s taken them on with a positive outlook and approach.”

California Police Chiefs Association President Kim J. Raney said Modesto is grappling with the same challenge that local law enforcement agencies against across the state are facing: recalibrating what level of service they can provide after several years of deep budget cuts. He said police and sheriff’s departments have lost 4,000 sworn officers since 2008 in the wake of the Great Recession.

“You no longer have the staffing to deliver the service that California is historically used to,” Raney said.

Doing more with less

Modesto has reduced its number of sworn officer positions from about 290 to about 230 since 2008, a decline of about 20 percent.

And in the wake of Measure X’s defeat in the November election, Modesto is bracing for more downsizing. Measure X was a 1 percent sales tax that was expected to bring in about $26 million annually over its six-year life. The city had pledged to spend half of the tax on public safety, including hiring 61 police officers.

City officials say they need to cut about $9  million from the city’s general fund over the next 21/2 years. The fund primarily pays for police and fire services and makes up about a third of the city’s $344 million operating budget.

Nyhoff said the city is looking at eliminating 10 of the 14 vacant officer positions within the Police Department. That would save the city about $500,000 in its current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and about $1 million over a full fiscal year.

Nyhoff said the city may have to cut an additional $1 million from the Police Department in the following year. The city is looking at reductions in other areas, such as closing or selling Centre Plaza, the city’s convention center.

Raney said law enforcement agencies also are dealing with the fallout of realignment, which the state enacted in fall 2011 to deal with prison overcrowding. Under realignment, low-level felons are being diverted to county jails. But local officials have complained that has led to the release of other criminals from the jails and into the community to make room for the felons.

Carroll said it’s frustrating for him and his employees that the department has had to retrench. He said the department has had to target how it uses officers, focusing them on where they can have the biggest impact.

He said residents can lose confidence in the police because officers can’t respond quickly enough to lower-priority incidents. For instance, a homeowner may have to wait two hours for an officer to arrive to take a burglary report and then later learn detectives won’t be investigating the case.

“That whole process frustrates everyone, both our residents and our staff ,” Carroll said in an email, “because we want to be there sooner and be able to get to all the cases; we just can’t, so we have to triage the cases and work from there.

“... With some of the public’s frustration, we haven’t done the best job letting the public know how many officers actually are on the street or are assigned to work property crimes so they also see the enormity of the gap between the demands for service vs. the resources we have to fill those needs.”

Making most of technology

In May, Carroll divided the city into four quadrants and assigned a lieutenant to oversee each one to make the department more accountable and strengthen the connection between officers and the people they protect.

Carroll also restored two crime analyst positions by shifting two community service officers into those duties. The positions had been eliminated in budget cuts before he arrived. The analysts can pinpoint crime hot spots and uncover trends as they pore through police reports and other data.

And the department recently starting using a computer program that predicts where crimes are likely to occur, down to an area as small as 500 by 500 feet. The predictive policing software uses statistics and mathematical modeling and is being used in such cities as Seattle and Los Angeles.

“We’re in a new era of policing and police departments (because of budget cuts),” said Tony Argüelles, president of the Modesto Police Officers Association, which represents the department’s officers and detectives. “We need to keep up with the technology that allows us to do our jobs better.”

Carroll is in the process of meeting one-on-one with every member of the Police Department. So far, he’s met with all of the sergeants and lieutenants and about 50 officers.

The meetings last a half hour to an hour and can be a little unnerving at the start for some employees because it may be the first time they have been in the police chief’s office and it can feel like being called to the principal’s office.

But the meetings are an opportunity for Carroll to get to know his employees and for them to get to know him. He said a common thread from the meetings is that employees want more accountability in the department.

The chief also has gone on a few ride-alongs with officers. And when he does, he takes off the gold stars on his collar that designate his rank. He also helps the officers on their calls.

“One of the refreshing things about him is he’s brought out the ability for his staff, for his people, to see him as a police officer,” Argüelles said.

Carroll typically works 50 to 60 hours each week. But when asked to sum up his first year, the word he uses is “fun.”

“I love challenges and to feel challenged,” he said by email. “We have several challenges in our city, crime, staffing levels, budget, etc, which are all pretty big things to tackle.

“It is also my goal to make MPD the best place to work in California. That is not accomplished solely with pay, etc, which I don’t control anyway, but by creating a fun, respectful environment ... , building a department that is proud of the work they do, creating an environment that isn’t afraid to try new ideas and cares about the community.”

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