Local

Gustine chief takes friendly fire

GUSTINE -- Police Chief Kris Anderson, with his shoulder-length gray hair and handlebar mustache, marched in this year's Fourth of July parade wearing a black frock coat and carrying a long-barrel revolver. He looked like Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.

Most days he's only acting the part, his angry officers and their union allege.

"He's not a leader," said an officer who (like his colleagues) spoke anonymously because he feared retribution. "He's not a cop. He's a public relations guy."

It's Anderson's swagger, abrasive style and penchant for hobnobbing at community social events that critics say led to a unanimous no-confidence vote from the Gustine Police Officers Association in July.

The split in law enforcement in this city of 5,500 comes as the department is operating with only half its force patrolling the streets. Three officers have left and two are on medical leave.

There's funding for 10 officers, but only five are on active duty; all of those, according to a union official, voted to send the no-confidence letter to the chief.

In the midst of all the turmoil, the city is seeing a spike in graffiti and gang activity. Its pharmacy was burglarized twice, with thieves taking $26,000 worth of prescription drugs.

Officers complain that the problem with the chief isn't caused by a single event they can pinpoint. It's more of a mound of small gripes -- his attitude, dress and approach -- over the past nine months that forced them to call for his resignation.

The internal strife, which began shortly after he moseyed into town in January, stayed behind closed doors until residents came forward with safety concerns at a recent City Council meeting. That's when the union decided to go public.

Labor leaders demand that Anderson be fired to appease the remaining officers. Those still on the payroll blame Anderson's management style for taking the department backward. They claim that his makeshift uniform, including cowboy boots and Wrangler slacks, doesn't command respect.

The mayor and council believe the differences can be mended with effort from both sides. Anderson asserts that every officer is behind him -- with the exception of a disgruntled trio that's leading the dissident charge.

They're resisting his plan to make the force more community-oriented in its duties to protect and serve, he said.

"It's disheartening that some members of the union have seen fit to publicly challenge my management style ... thereby eroding public confidence," he said after questioning how a reporter learned of the strife.

While admitting that there are times in the evening when only one officer patrols the city, he insisted that residents are safe because the Newman Police Department, five minutes away, is willing to respond as needed. He also said that two empty positions should be filled within the month.

Hired without City Council input

City Manager Roger Wong, who left two months ago for another job, had hired Anderson to replace retiring Chief Don Hutchins.

The decision, in order to comply with Gustine's code, was made without the input of the City Council. On Jan. 1, Anderson signed a three-year contract with a starting salary of $72,293 and 25 days vacation. Both are at the high end of the scale because of his experience. He came out of retirement because the job and the city appealed to him.

"I don't want to pretend that this is Mayberry," Anderson said. "You know what this town is? Gustine is the last remaining Norman Rockwell town in the Central Valley."

Anderson, who had spent 28 years with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, lives about an hour away on a ranch in Livermore. The union complains it would take him too much time to respond to an after-hours emergency.

The chief said he's always been about an hour away from his job, and the distance hasn't kept him from getting deeply involved with the service groups in the community. He also is a member of the downtown revitalization committee, he said.

After taking over the department, Anderson said, he was struck by an us-versus-them attitude shown by many officers.

A typical example, he explained, was when he reprimanded an officer for issuing a parking ticket to a delivery truck driver at the beginning of a festa, a Portuguese celebration. He declined to explain why the ticket was issued, but said the truck wasn't obstructing any other cars and believes the officer was targeting the driver.

The chief opened his wallet and paid the ticket, rather than voiding it because that could stir claims of favoritism, he said.

Calling himself a feet-on-the-street chief, Anderson said he asked business owners and residents about the changes they'd like to see in the department. The response, he said, was overwhelming. "Many people felt there wasn't the police presence they would have hoped for," he said.

His remedy is to be more visible and interact with the public, an approach that has met with internal resistance. The department has fostered a culture that takes more time to change, the chief said.

Unions' votes of no confidence in police chiefs are becoming more common because it's a political way to gain public support, the chief asserted. He disputes that the vote was unanimous and said he sees a spirit of cooperation among the officers who are ready to embrace his philosophy.

Before sending its grievance to City Hall, the union asked that he resign so the department can look elsewhere for leadership. He refused. "I made some commitments here," he affirmed, "and I'm going to keep them."

The officers would rather see Anderson head back over the Altamont Pass, said union representative Pat Thistle, of Operating Engineers Local 3.

There hasn't been any progress toward mending the department, and he said the only solution is a different chief. "The rubber band only stretches so far," the 67-year-old Thistle said. "Now it's snapped."

Officers' complaints are many

The department's complaints against Anderson include unexpected schedule changes, lack of leadership, poor communication skills and unprofessional behavior at work and in public.

On occasion, Anderson holsters his personal .38-caliber Colt revolver rather than the city's standard-issue Beretta because it's smaller and there are times when he doesn't want to immediately be recognized as an officer.

Thistle points to this break from the pack as one of the smaller issues that are part of the bigger problem. Three officers have left since Anderson arrived, and more will soon turn in their badges, Thistle predicted. "You had a stable work force," he said. "What happened? Kris Anderson. And no one can deny that."

One officer said Anderson needs to lead by example, while another said the chief doesn't project a command presence.

"All chiefs have different styles. He's just got that Mayberry-ish attitude," the officer lamented. "Instead of progressing, we're regressing."

Mayor Rich Ford, 49, said he supports the chief and believes the rift can be resolved if the factions come together to talk.

He explained that Anderson's management style, which focuses less on traffic crimes and more on neighborhood patrol, didn't come across clearly to officers. "I just hate to see people choose up sides because they'll never overcome it," he said.

Anderson said he won't be intimidated by what he sees as a power grab by the union. He won't run away from Gustine, which he believes is a good fit for him.

He just hopes the chief-versus-cops drama doesn't wind up like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

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