Marek Warszawski

Welcome to politics, Chief Dyer. He’s popular, polarizing and could be next Fresno mayor

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says he’s weighing run at mayor in 2020

Retiring Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says he's weighing run at mayor in 2020.
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Retiring Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says he's weighing run at mayor in 2020.

The front-runner in the 2020 Fresno mayoral race is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla who casts a 20-foot shadow at noon and cuts a dashing figure in dress blues and a gray suit.

Welcome to politics, Jerry Dyer.

Although Fresno’s longtime chief of police has yet to declare his candidacy, that should be a mere formality now that Mayor Lee Brand has bowed out. As soon as Dyer says he’s in, he’ll immediately move to the top of the heap ahead of Fresno County prosecutor Andrew Janz, Fresno City Councilmember Luis Chavez and anyone else.

The only question is whether Dyer’s supporters and enthusiasts will outnumber his critics and detractors at the ballot box.

The answer promises to be fascinating.

Dyer may not be a politician (yet), but he possesses the requisite skills and savvy. The soon-to-be-retiring chief is a powerful presence in front of large groups and a thoughtful one in private conversation.

I can attest to that.

Last May, Dyer held a news conference to discuss a police raid on a marijuana dispensary in central Fresno. Except much of what his officers confiscated and he displayed for the cameras weren’t dangerous drugs; they were CBD-infused edibles that people use to treat everything from insomnia to epilepsy.

Dyer gummy candies
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer holds gummy candies infused with cannabis part a 150-pound seizure of edibles from a Fresno marijuana dispensary on April 27, 2018. Dyer made the bust public May 2 in part “to send a message” to other dispensaries he told Bee columnist Marek Warszawski. John Walker

This rubbed me the wrong way – it reeked of Reefer Madness-style policing in a state where adult recreational marijuana use is legal – so I asked Dyer for a sit-down. He agreed and we met at his favorite Starbucks on U Street. We both ordered iced coffees.

During our 30-minute conversation, I explained my position and Dyer explained his. He didn’t duck any of my questions. And although we parted ways agreeing to disagree, I certainly gained a better understanding of his reasoning.

“The highest priority we have in the Fresno Police Department is protecting our children,” Dyer told me, “whether that’s from drive-by shootings or from an overdose of lookalike edible candy.”

The column I wrote was critical of both Dyer and the raid. (I dismissed his we-did-it-for-the-kids rationale as “fallacious fear-stoking guised as policing.”) The chief doesn’t get much criticism in this city, especially from elected leaders and the media, so I wasn’t sure how he would react.

It didn’t take long to find out. A week after the column ran, I rode my bike to Woodward Park to catch the closing night of Grizzly Fest from outside the perimeter fence that organizers had erected.

Fresno police had a similar idea. They brought out an aerial lift (for crowd-monitoring purposes) and I saw Dyer taking Brand, Councilmember Paul Caprioglio and their wives up for a look-see.

Dyer soon spotted me standing nearby. He immediately came over with a smile and friendly handshake. The odor of marijuana was everywhere, and we shared a joke about that. He even offered to take me up in the lift until a subordinate cautioned him about the potential liability.

How many public officials in Dyer’s position would react the same way to a columnist who was openly critical of them? Based on personal experience, very few. To me, that showed diplomacy and tact – two qualities every politician should have.

Even those who haven’t officially declared for any race.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer comments on Governor Newsom's decision to halt death penalty executions in California.

That’ll change soon enough. The confluence of Brand stepping away and Dyer inching forward doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I suspect Dyer made it known, in local political circles, that he intended to run for mayor. Which caused Brand to read the tea leaves and head to the exit door.

Regardless, Dyer is a formidable candidate and probably the favorite in the still-emerging race based solely on name recognition and familiarity.

At the same time, I doubt any person in the community is more polarizing. Based on my observations, Fresnans either love Chief Dyer or harbor a strong dislike for him and his department’s policies. I’m not sure there’s an in-between. For proof, check the Facebook or Twitter comments that accompanied this week’s “strongly considering” declaration.

For every person who admires Dyer for being tough on crime, there’s someone who can’t forget how the chief of police didn’t seem to know his second-in-command was dealing drugs under his very nose.

For every person who applauds Dyer for his crackdown on gangs, there’s someone who blames him for contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline that ensnares so many in Fresno’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.

For every person who admires Dyer for his devout faith, there’s someone who wants to bring up his past indiscretions that have never received a full public airing.

While speaking to reporters, Dyer hinted at a campaign platform of “one vision, one Fresno.” Whether he can articulate that vision beyond a catchphrase will prove his biggest obstacle.

It certainly won’t be his interpersonal skills.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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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.