When Greg Williamson took office as Bakersfield’s chief of police in 2010, Black Lives Matter was years from hashtag status and police body cameras had yet to become part of the national discussion.
A lot can change in a few years, and Williamson expects his successor will, like him, encounter an array of unexpected challenges.
“More challenges are coming,” Williamson, 52, said at BPD headquarters last week. “It’s not stopping.”
The chief said all six BPD employees in command positions were up for retirement next year, but three have decided to stay, while others in the department will be promoted and learn the position. He declined to say who was staying and who was retiring.
“We need to make sure we have leadership and experience remaining at the top,” Williamson said.
Last year was a tough one for Williamson. His sister died, then Officer David Nelson was killed in a crash in June 2015 while chasing a suspect, becoming the first BPD officer to die in the line of duty in more than 30 years.
The chief had originally planned to keep working until 2018, but after discussions with his family — including a daughter graduating college who said she would like to see him more — he decided 2016 would mark the end of his tenure.
Williamson said it’s the best decision for his family and for the department. The new chief will need a host of skills, he said, including, with controversial incidents involving police making headlines both locally and nationwide, the ability to develop community trust.
CONTROVERSY AND IMPROVEMENTS
City Manager Alan Tandy echoed Williamson’s comments regarding establishing trust within the community, noting the recent sentencing of former police detective Damacio Diaz to five years in prison for offenses including drug trafficking and taking bribes.
Nationwide, Tandy said, there is a lot of acrimony regarding police amid questions of use of force.
On Monday, a civil rights attorney representing families of several people killed by Bakersfield police called for a federal takeover of the department. BPD officials have declined comment until Diaz’s partner, Patrick Mara, is sentenced on Oct. 24.
Mara pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine.
District Attorney Lisa Green announced Friday that more than 80 cases handled either by Diaz or Mara are under review. Some have already been dismissed.
The Diaz/Mara situation has been the most high-profile black eye for the department under Williamson’s tenure, but Tandy has said he believes the corruption was isolated to only those two.
Still, damage has been done.
“We need someone who has the ideas and policies and procedures in place to reinforce confidence in the openness of the department,” Tandy said.
Overall, Tandy said, Williamson has done an excellent job.
“He has a very open and fair communication style, is very honest and has great personal integrity,” Tandy said.
The city manager said he is particularly impressed with Williamson’s implementation of recommendations given by the International Association of Police Chiefs in a study commissioned in January 2014.
As advised by the study, the chief implemented changes leading to a 50 percent reduction in response times across the city. That change was due in part to another move, approved by the IACP, redividing the department’s jurisdiction from 25 geographical beats to six larger zones.
In addition to improving response times, the move was aimed at making more officers available to answer calls in their zone and giving them more investigation time.
Another issue facing the police force, and commented on by the IACP, is its lack of diversity. Williamson said diversity will continue to be addressed as the department faces more turnover as veteran officers reach retirement age.
Community activist Isaiah Crompton, long involved with groups such as Stop the Violence, said he’s spoken to Williamson a number of times about gang violence, and the chief has been receptive to the needs of the community. Crompton’s grandson was shot and killed in June outside a hookah lounge on California Avenue. No arrests have been made.
And with the shootings of police officers and black men across the country, Crompton said, more work is needed.
“There’s a need to bridge that gap and try to understand better as a community what we need to do to stay whole,” he said.
Crompton takes no issue with the next chief coming from within the BPD, as required by the city charter. He’d like to see Assistant Police Chief Lyle Martin selected for the job due to his years of experience and tutelage under Williamson.
“What better person than someone who already knows the needs of the community and has a finger on the pulse of Kern County?” Crompton said.
Local neighborhood watch leader David Collins said the community of Tyner Ranch, where he lives, has had its ups and downs, but the police force during Williamson’s tenure as chief has helped them.
About a year ago, the neighborhood experienced a number of burglaries, car thefts and other crime, Collins said. Police responded with extra patrols and have attended neighborhood watch meetings to stay up to date on problems and establish more contacts.
The only suggestion Collins had, one which he said the department appears to already be implementing, was to be more active on social media. At 60 years old, Collins jokingly referred to himself as an “old guy,” but said younger people in the community are so involved with social media that it only makes sense for the police to increase their online presence.
The BPD recently partnered with Nextdoor, described as a private social network for neighborhoods that can serve as a virtual neighborhood watch.
The chief said he’s proud of the work they’ve done establishing connections online, and said the department uses its Facebook page, followed by thousands, to promote positive events within the community.
Addressing the controversy surrounding police shootings, Williamson said some of it stems from social media posts made by those who want to be first with the news despite not having all the facts. Then people demand video of shootings be released, the chief said, and if the footage doesn’t support their theory of what happened, they claim it’s been tampered with.
While he’s endured criticism, Williamson said that during his tenure the city of Bakersfield has experienced two of its statistically lowest crime years in its history. Last year the city, like California as a whole, saw an uptick, and there have been a slew of shootings this year.
“Crime across California is up, and Bakersfield is no exception,” he said.
Making law enforcement’s job more challenging, Williamson said, is legislation resulting in the early release of prisoners.
SELECTION PROCESS UNDERWAY
The process of choosing Williamson’s successor was set in motion last week with the Police Civil Service Commission tasked with outlining the parameters under which possible candidates will be narrowed to three finalists.
A separate interview and evaluation process will take place, and Tandy will select the person he believes is best equipped for the job.
Education and experience are taken into account, Tandy said, as are the ability to handle a sizable budget — the department has resources of about $90 million a year — and oversee a workforce of hundreds.
It’s the people, both inside the department and in the community at large, that Williamson said he will miss the most. He said he and other officers take pride in the city and, somewhat unusually for a department its size, more than 90 percent of BPD employees live within city limits.
“The members of the Bakersfield Police Department are committed to their communities,” he said.
For the moment, the chief has no plans for what to do after retirement. He said he lost touch with a lot of his hobbies, such as coaching, given how busy he’s been running the department.
There’s some anxiety as, for the first time in decades, he’s not sure what comes next. In addition to vacations and more family time, he said he’ll keep his eyes open and, if something comes along he’s interested in, he’ll do it.
His last day will fall sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. The department will then pass in to the hands of another chief who will experience both the gratification, and headaches, that come with the position.