Bill McEwen

How does Jerry Dyer celebrate 15 years as police chief?

Jerry Dyer has led the Fresno Police Department for 15 years. A gala in his honor will be held Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at the Fresno Convention Center Exhibit Hall. The event will benefit Project STEALTH, a mentoring program for at-risk youths.
Jerry Dyer has led the Fresno Police Department for 15 years. A gala in his honor will be held Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at the Fresno Convention Center Exhibit Hall. The event will benefit Project STEALTH, a mentoring program for at-risk youths. Fresno Bee file

So, what do you give a big-city police chief who has survived 15 years on the job?

Given the pressure that comes with the position, a lifetime supply of antacids might be in order.

In Jerry Dyer’s case, he received a new rug adorned with his name and the department logo. It graces the space between the doorway and his office desk on the second floor of Fresno Police Headquarters. When he retires, Dyer says he’s taking it home and putting it up on a wall.

Sometimes, modest but thoughtful gifts such as this one have the most meaning. Thirty-five department members chipped in for the rug in an effort organized by Eileen Guzman. She has been Dyer’s executive assistant since he became Fresno’s top cop.

Dyer will be honored, too, Saturday night at the Fresno Convention Center Exhibit Hall. The black-tie-optional affair, billed as a “gala evening of dinner, dancing and entertainment,” will benefit Project STEALTH.

Yes, it reads like the code name for a cyberhacking operation, but STEALTH stands for Stop Teen Exploitation and Liberate Through Hope. Fresno police receive about 2,700 calls for runaway youths every year and many of the kids who don’t quickly return home are recruited into prostitution and pornography. Project STEALTH uses police chaplains to mentor at-risk youths, and it is credited with helping kids overcome challenges in school and at home.

Asked about the event, Dyer says, “I don’t know if I’m going to be honored or roasted. Probably a little of both.”

It has always been that way for police chiefs, but events of the past two years across America – controversial police shootings of black men and youths, widespread protests against police, the targeted murders of police officers, and the ability of citizens to post video on social media – have put law enforcement agencies and their leaders under unprecedented and often warranted scrutiny.

For a long spell, Dyer and the Fresno Police Department ran under the radar. In fact, in May of last year, The Washington Post published a complimentary story about the department under the headline “In Fresno, a community-policing ethos builds ties between officers and residents.” Featured prominently was a photo of Dyer talking to 2-year-old Josiah Johnson and his father, Dorian, at a Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission event.

Dyer, the department’s rank and file, and city leaders deserved the praise that came their way. The chief had embraced many of the reforms put forth by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Dyer also committed early to the use of of body-cam video equipment by officers over the objections of the Fresno Police Officers Association. And he made sure that the department was at the forefront of using analytics to deploy officers to hot spots and to quickly react to crime trends.

But there were cracks in the department, as Dyer acknowledged in an interview last week. The 9/11 terror attacks shifted federal funding for community policing efforts to homeland security. Reliance on analytics, while a valuable tool, focused department efforts on catching bad guys at the cost of less community engagement.

Budget cuts of the Great Recession meant there were fewer officers on the street – and no opportunity for younger officers to promote to supervisory positions.

Add the effects of Gov. Jerry Brown’s so-called realignment of some felony offenders from the state to local jurisdictions and voter passage of the flawed but well-intended Proposition 47, in which some felonies were reduced to misdemeanors, and Fresno cops felt like they were stuck in a boat without oars.

Now throw in Deputy Chief Keith Foster’s arrest on suspicion of drug-dealing and the Dylan Noble shooting, which was captured on video by a bystander and resulted in public protests and legal claims against the city, and you have to wonder how much longer Dyer can – or would want to – continue as chief. Especially with a new mayor taking over after the Nov. 8 election.

“There have been days that I didn’t enjoy this job,” Dyer says. “Days that I said, ‘Is it ever going to get better?’ ”

But now he has Oct. 3 marked on his calendar.

“It’s going to be a big day for our city,” he says.

Think of Oct. 3 as the unveiling of the “new” Fresno Police Department.

It’s natural to be cynical about things touted as “new” or “improved” or “reorganized,” but there is real meat – and lots of it – on this bone.

The department has hired many young, new officers and promoted veterans into supervisory roles. Some of the tactical teams have been streamlined; this is putting more officers on patrol and in neighborhoods. Worn-out equipment and patrol cars are being replaced. And residents will be served by officers working out of five districts – not four as is now the case.

“It will be like it was before the recession,” Dyer says. “We will lower our response time and engage with residents more. We will be able to take officers out of the field and provide more training on dealing with people who have mental-health issues and more training on de-escalation techniques.”

What is sure to get the lion’s share of media attention is the return of the Central District, which will be housed at Manchester Center – a mall and a neighborhood that should see an uplift from having a visible and constant police presence. Also on tap: a new Southeast District police station at the sprawling Fancher Creek development that broke ground in May.

The department is now budgeted for 779 sworn positions – including Dyer’s – and will be authorized for 804 come next June. Using the yardstick long advocated by police experts of two positions per 1,000 residents, Fresno should have 1,040 officers today.

“I will put what we do with what we have against any department in the country,” Dyer says. “When other chiefs come here, they’re amazed at the performance of our officers.”

The chief isn’t perfect. He’s made mistakes. We all do. He has his cheerleaders and his critics. But leading the police department in Fresno, a city fraught with serious economic and social challenges, for 15 years is, indeed, worth celebrating.

Bill McEwen is The Bee’s editorial page editor: bmcewen@fresnobee.com, 559-441-6632, @Fresnomac

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