In less than a year, the structure and leadership at the Police Department have undergone dramatic changes – and there are more to come.
Eight officers have left for other jobs, and two sergeants have retired.
The longtime deputy chief retired and the position was eliminated in favor of a captain and three, rather than two, lieutenants.
The man who served as the city’s public safety director, overseeing the police and fire departments, left city employ, and the departments were divided.
And Tuesday evening, one of the department’s former lieutenants was sworn in as the city’s 11th police chief.
After serving as the city’s acting chief for seven months, Brent Smith was chosen from a pool of eight candidates to assume the role permanently.
“As I started this interview process with the finalists, I quickly realized I was measuring other candidates to Brent,” City Manager Toby Wells said during the ceremony at the Ceres Community Center. “ ... The character, the passion, the skill set that we already had here. It was my pleasure to recognize that and realize that he is the best guy for this job.”
Smith, 45, discussed the future of the department and addressed concerns of the past during a recent interview in his new office. Pictures and framed certificates sat on the floor waiting to be hung. Across the hall, the former deputy chief’s office was empty, but a new “Captain” plaque awaits an accompanying name.
Smith’s appointment will have a domino effect within the organization as he promotes his new administration, which he said had been flat for many years.
Prior to August, no one had been promoted within the department since 2008, he said.
“There needs to be opportunity,” Smith said. “Each of those positions are going to come with a certain level of responsibilities and training to make them marketable, but also give them the ability to know they can be promoted in this organization.”
Eight officers have left Ceres in as many months for higher-paying jobs outside the Central Valley.
Despite having some concessions returned for the first time in five years, Smith said, Ceres still can’t compete with the places for which officers left, such as Mountain View. There, an officer can earn more than $112,000, compared with Ceres, where they top out at a little less than $70,000.
Other Valley agencies have faced the same challenges. Modesto lost a dozen officers during the same time period.
Smith said the sluggish economy contributed to the lack of movement within the Ceres Police Department and other departments, which for the first time in years are starting to recover and recruit new employees.
But supporters of former police Chief Art de Werk say it’s no coincidence that the “mass exodus” of officers coincided with his abrupt departure from the city eight months ago.
The council voted to relieve de Werk of his duties in June shortly after he returned from medical leave. De Werk has been unable to speak about his separation from the city under the terms of an agreement.
Frank Johnson, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, warned the council of a “mass exodus,” saying some 15 officers planned to leave as a result of the shift in leadership. He also questioned Smith’s qualifications when he was appointed to serve as acting chief.
Smith said building and maintaining relationships with leaders in all ethnic groups in the community is important and something his predecessor did well. He said he’s already begun making the same efforts and hopes he can achieve understanding with Johnson.
“I have talked to him recently and I hope that we’ve fixed some of the issues that we have, but I can tell you that I won’t stop trying to have a good relationship with Frank,” Smith said. “I had a good relationship with Frank when I was working as a lieutenant. … I just hope it gets like that again with him and any group out there.”
Apart from community outreach, Smith said improving the department’s technology is one of his top priorities.
The department’s computer-aided dispatch and records management systems are 15 years old. Ideally, the two systems would be integrated, eliminating the need for redundant data entry and giving the crime analyst instant data so the department can better target its resources.
Smith said he’s been studying different companies and options, including one system that farms out its data storage to companies such as Amazon and Google. He said the upgrade will cost well over $1 million and be in use at least another 15 years, so he anticipates it will take some time to make the best decision for the city.
Already as acting chief, Smith approved the purchase of body-worn cameras and a license plate reader, which will be outfitted in one of the new Ford Explorer patrol cars.
Modesto police in 2012 became the first department in the county to use body cameras, which record officers’ interactions with suspects and witnesses. Ceres likely will be next, but Smith said he must create a policy he hopes will address some concerns.
“Can a camera see better than a human eye, or worse?” Smith said. “We don’t really want to be so dependent on the camera that we don’t believe the officer, and that’s where there is some concern.”
Another problem Smith would like to avoid is the department becoming inundated with public records requests for the footage. “I don’t want to get to the point where it is some reality TV show,” he said.
Smith said he will begin implementing these new technologies after he’s done hiring officers and making promotions. Two lateral officers from Chowchilla Police and Tuolumne County began this week, and more candidates are scheduled to be interviewed. “We are going to have a young administration here, but I think it’s going to be good,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
▪ Brent Smith lived in south Modesto until he was 12, when his family moved to Ceres. He graduated from Ceres High School in 1987. His wife, Tonya, is a detective with the Ceres Police Department. They have a 10-year-old son, Cody.
▪ Tonya Smith is out on medical leave, but Brent Smith has said that if she returns, he would avoid a conflict of interest by allowing the city manager to intercede on any personnel matter concerning her.
▪ In his free time, Smith enjoys camping, fishing, horseback riding and traveling with his family. They live on 10 acres outside Ceres, where they have horses and cattle.
Education and work experience:
▪ In 1988, Smith joined the Army and served in the military police until 1992, when he left with the rank of sergeant.
▪ He joined the Ceres department in 1993 and was promoted to sergeant in 1998 and lieutenant in 2007.
▪ He earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Modesto Junior College and a bachelor’s degree in social science from Chapman University.
▪ In 2009, Smith received his master’s degree in organizational leadership from Chapman University. He also graduated from the 18-month Peace Officer Standards and Training Command College.