He’s had successful 30 years as a cop, he says. Can the new chief fix Atwater?

New police chief says he’s been successful. Wants that success in Atwater

Atwater Police Chief Michael Salvador discusses on Monday, March 18, 2019, the challenges he sees in the city, which is struggling over its debt. He also addresses the troubled police evidence locker.
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Atwater Police Chief Michael Salvador discusses on Monday, March 18, 2019, the challenges he sees in the city, which is struggling over its debt. He also addresses the troubled police evidence locker.

About a month into the job in Atwater, where there has been a revolving door for some of the city’s highest paid employees, the new chief says he’s determined to heal the department’s shortcomings.

Police Chief Michael Salvador said he’s had success as a member of law enforcement in every agency he’s worked in the past 30 years. He said Atwater is his last stop and he’s already developing plans for improvements.

The department of 25 officers is housed in a 50-year-old building that hasn’t kept up with the times.

“It was not built for the size of the city that it is now and the advances in technology over 50 years. Just was not constructed in that way,” the 54-year-old said. “In that time, we have to make upgrades to this building, to its technology and to policies and procedures.”

Making those upgrades, especially in a cash-strapped city like Atwater, can’t happen all at once, he said. It has to happen by taking little bites out of the problem.

Salvador started his career as an officer with the Kerman Police Department and was promoted to sergeant there. He moved to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office in 1997. In 2003, he was promoted to lieutenant and in 2013 was promoted to undersheriff by former Sheriff John Anderson. He was Coalinga’s chief for almost four years.

Atwater faces many challenges as the city has struggled with its finances, with a $2.5 million general fund debt and millions more in unfunded liabilities. The city has recently loosened its marijuana dispensary laws as one of many efforts to pay down debt, and has looked at selling its properties.

Planning and looking for ways to get more revenue, like applying for grants, can go a long way, he said. “We’re going to spend money with purpose,” he said. “We understand the funds are tight.”

The chief is in the process of meeting one-on-one with each employee of the department and auditing all of its needs, he said. “They’ve given me insight on the culture of the police department, and some of that culture will have to change,” he said.

The new chief was hired by City Manager Lori Waterman, the sixth top administrator in two years. Multiple city managers have left the city after short stints of enduring abuse from members of the public or elected officials.

The police department also has had problems with its evidence locker. Problems with the police department’s evidence room came to light in August when a letter from then-District Attorney Larry Morse II surfaced. The Sun-Star has confirmed investigators believe evidence missing from the locker may have included guns, drugs and cash.

The state Department of Justice agreed to do a full audit of the locker. It hasn’t been made public yet.

Salvador said he has read a portion of the audit and believes most of the locker’s woes will be fixed with better procedures and training.

“I’m looking for good, continuous, professional development and training,” he said. “These are things that are really quick fixes so we’re going to do those things.”

Salvador is taking over a police department that has been run by interim chiefs for about a year. Former Chief Samuel Joseph was terminated in January after being on paid leave during that year.

Along with a number of accusations of misconduct, Joseph was accused of ignoring the problems with the department’s evidence room, according to the letter announcing his termination.

“As an experienced and educated police chief, one who has attended the FBI academy, you were most certainly aware that the city’s evidence room and locker fell well below the minimum standards of operation of a police evidence room,” the letter to Joseph said.

The refrigerator used to store biological evidence was not maintained properly and was overflowing, causing the door to open, according to the letter.

Problems with evidence-storage practices in Atwater had been documented before the most recent issues came to light, according to an audit conducted in 2010 by the California Commission on Police Officers Standards and Training. The termination letter alleges none of the recommendations from that report had been implemented under Joseph’s tenure.

Through his attorney, Joseph has denied the accusations and filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city. That case is scheduled to return to civil court in May, according to online records.

Salvador was sworn in Feb. 21 and said he is not looking back.

“On Feb. 21 of 2019, Atwater PD turned a page. What happened in the past, happened in the past,” he said. “I’m hoping that when I hang it up — because this is my last stop — the Atwater Police Department will be in better shape than when I walked in the door.”