Marek Warszawski

Citizens sound off on search for Fresno’s next police chief. Is Mayor Brand listening?

What are the people of Fresno looking for in the city’s next police chief?

Someone completely different from the current one.

That was the message, delivered by two dozen speakers Tuesday night at the Fresno High School cafeteria, during the fourth of five community meetings soliciting public input into the city of Fresno’s ongoing search for Jerry Dyer’s successor. About 50 people turned out.

Dyer, who retires in October following 18 years as Fresno’s top cop, was not in the room. Still, he was an unmistakable presence. Nearly every speaker either mentioned Dyer by name or alluded to him during their turn at the microphone.

Despite the best efforts of meeting facilitator Jackie Ryle, Fresno’s city clerk from 1967-95, to steer the conversation toward the future and what qualities city leaders should be looking for in its next police chief, speaker after speaker insisted on rehashing the past.

“A lot of the community feels the police can’t be trusted, and that starts at the top,” one speaker said.

“The chief has to be able to empathize with the community and understand Fresno is a multicultural city,” said another.

“I would really like to look into the eyes of another human being,” added Carrie Ayala of Central Valley Movement Building, “and see a human being and not someone with dead eyes who has already made his mind up about me.”

A sampling of other sentiments:

The next police chief needs to appreciate diversity and youth of color and stop racial profiling.

He or she should believe in real community policing and a citizen’s review board with true oversight.

He or she should not criminalize homeless and the poor. That includes the department’s practice of ticketing and towing cars in lower-income neighborhoods.

He or she should steer clear of political endorsements.

He or she should not interfere with the judicial process.

‘Not the police chief’s place’

Multiple speakers were bothered by comments Dyer made to The Bee and other local media outlets concerning Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, currently on trial for misdemeanor child abuse.

Dyer’s words cast doubt on Arambula’s explanation of the events following his arrest, which several people felt was an attempt to influence public sentiment.

“It is not the police chief’s place to be the police officer, the judge and the jury,” one said. “His words were intended to sway public opinion against a certain state legislator.”

Listening to all this (well, hopefully) were Mayor Lee Brand and City Manager Wilma Quan, the two people who “will make the final decision” on Dyer’s successor. That was the precise phrase Brand used in his opening remarks before settling into a seat in the back row.

During his mayoral campaign, Brand pledged to include community members in the search. These meetings – the final one is Thursday evening at Hoover High – are a direct result of that.

However, some questioned how much input they really have.

“I would love to see a more inclusive process,” said a young man with dreadlocks beneath his backward baseball cap. “Yes, we’re getting the chance to ask questions. But we don’t know if these questions really matter.”

At the end of the meeting, Jeff Cardell, the city’s personnel director, gave assurances that members of the public will be included in panel interviews with the top candidates.

Who will make those appointments? The mayor.

According to the city’s timeline, the recruitment period ends June 15. That will be followed by panel interviews in July and finalist interviews in August. The plan is to have a new police chief hired in September, giving the department one month of overlap until Dyer steps down.

Judging by the tone of the comments, that can’t come soon enough.

Brand’s ‘most important decision’

However, it would be wrong of me to imply that what I heard Tuesday night is reflective of the entire community. If the meeting took place at a high school in a different part of town, say Bullard or Clovis West, people’s opinions on Dyer and what they want in a new police chief would’ve been markedly different.

I’m very confident of that. The dichotomy is illustrative of the “Tale of Two Cities” trope that has plagued Fresno for decades.

It’s Brand’s job to bridge the divide, to hire someone who satisfies all segments of the community. This may be the most important decision he makes as mayor.

Andrew Janz, the Fresno County prosecutor who will oppose Brand in 2020, wants to postpone the search until after the election and appoint an interim chief in the meantime.

I think that’s a bad idea, and here’s why: First, the department should not go more than a year without a leader. Second, this is Brand’s choice to make – and I want him to make it.

If Brand has been listening at these community meetings, really listening, he’ll hire someone whose qualities and attitudes mirror the part of Fresno that has been long ignored by those in power.

But if Brand hires a Dyer clone, we’ll know beyond any doubt these meetings were nothing more than ear service. And come election time, there could be consequences.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.