As Mesa police Chief George Gascón prepares to move to San Francisco, City Manager Chris Brady expects to have an interim chief in place in about two weeks.
As Mesa police Chief George Gascón prepares to move on to the top post in San Francisco, Mesa leaders are preparing for a transition of their own.
City Manager Chris Brady has said he expects to have an interim chief in place in about two weeks and ultimately a new chief in about two to three months. Gascón will stay in Mesa until July 31.
Brady, who in 2006 hired Gascón, then assistant police chief in Los Angeles, hasn't counted out a national recruitment process this time around either.
"We're going after the best person for Mesa," Brady said. "We're looking for someone who'll roll up their sleeves, get involved in the community, fight crime and keep Mesa safe."
Looking within would serve Mesa well, say the two police unions and even Gascón.
Gascón told the Tribune any one of the three current Mesa assistant police chiefs - John Meza, Mike Denney or Mike Dvorak - could take on that role. All three have reportedly expressed interest in the position.
"Absolutely," said Gascón, who's going from a $180,000-a-year salary in Mesa to $292,000 in California.
Bryan Soller, president of the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police, said all three already understand Gascón's vision and would be able to follow through and finish the changes begun.
Meza, assistant chief of operations, appears to be popular among the rank-and-file officers and is a likely front-runner, added Soller.
A Mesa native and former president of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, Phil Austin, said the group plans to ask Brady to seek community input by involving them in the interview process at some stage before making a decision for a new chief.
The unions believe a new chief's key challenge would be leading a department with a budget that saw $15 million cut recently - a 2 percent cut in salaries and frozen merit pay for some officers beginning this July - and still maintain the downward trend in crime. Mesa should have about 1,200 officers, noted Soller, while it's expected the city will be down to 780 in the near future.
"As you lose officers, productivity goes down and the way you handle things changes. Shrinking budgets and shrinking manpower are the big issue," said Soller.
Chris Adamczyk, secretary of the Mesa Police Association, agreed.
"It affects how many officers we have on the street and how many can be hired and how well we deal with fighting crime - it's all tied together," he said.
Soller said efforts like tracking crime statistics through a method called COMPSTAT should stay even after Gascón is gone, as well as the East Valley Criminal Gang and Information Fusion Center, which promotes cooperation among local police departments to nab criminals.
Some things would need to be reconsidered, said Adamczyk, who'd like a review of some policies, such as an Internal Affairs policy on investigating every complaint. Adamczyk said he believes not every complaint needs to be a full investigation and in some instances, letting sergeants or field supervisors take care of them would be a better use of time and resources.
"When you make every single complaint equal, you'll run the risk of not doing a good enough job (on those) that warrant investigation."
Gascón emphasized transparency throughout his tenure in Mesa through such measures. He recently made public - before it even made the news - two incidents involving Mesa officers being investigated for alleged misconduct, one of which involved flushing a dead fetus.
Not many in Mesa were surprised by Gascón's move to San Francisco, a high-profile city believed to be a good fit for his personality, and the chance to lead a bigger city he's described as "forward thinking." The Cuban immigrant with a thick accent is well-regarded nationally among policing circles for his sense of professionalism, technological approach to policing, and tapping into the community and feeling its pulse to prevent crime.
Todd Foglesong, a senior research associate at Harvard University who's worked with Gascón on policing research work, admires Gascón for being concerned about issues like police departments pricing themselves out of the policing business with high salaries, for example, especially in light of increasingly tight city budgets.
"Research shows the value of return of an officer is well worth the expense, but I was taken by George to even ask such a highly ethical question of whether police departments should spend so much money," said Foglesong.
In Mesa, Gascón took a "business model efficiency approach" and applied that to a police department by reducing time to book people in jail and using police officers elsewhere in the community. Gascón is also generally praised for initiatives like COMPSTAT - an alerting device within an organization on tracking crime trends. He also steered the East Valley Criminal Gang and Information Fusion Center, which helps local police agencies communicate better in solving crimes.
In his nearly three-year tenure, Gascón has led the department in reducing serious crimes like homicides and rapes by 34 percent.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith also hoped a new chief would build upon the foundation of community policing and regional cooperation.
The "outsider" mantle in California should not be too hard to take on, Gascón told California media this week.
"I have the advantage that I have been an outsider once already in a place that was very hostile to outsiders," he was quoted as saying.
Throughout his three-year tenure, Gascón has dealt with critics in Mesa who've been opposed to what they believe has been a lax attitude toward illegal immigrants.
Gascón has maintained he backs a policy under which illegal immigrants who haven't committed any other crime don't fear approaching police as a crime witness for fear of arrest for being in the country illegally. He does favor reporting those who get arrested for other crimes to federal authorities.
Those differences in approach have led to skirmishes with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, especially over several immigration sweeps Arpaio orchestrated in Mesa. It also led to Gascón's testimony in Washington over the pressures local police face amid tight resources to also enforce federal immigration laws.
Both the union leaders and the city leadership say they'd like the new chief to continue dealing with illegal immigration the same way as has been Mesa's policy thus far - focusing on crime prevention.
"The bottom line is we don't have the manpower and resources to deal with every illegal immigrant. But we do focus on illegals who are also criminals," Soller said.
Adamczyk hopes for "the same common-sense approach to illegal immigration." He added the new chief should be more clear with the public on the police work Mesa already does in dealing with illegal immigrants.
"Once the public realizes we do enforce immigration laws, and they see our officers are doing their job, it would back off the sanctuary city rhetoric," Adamczyk said.
Smith has also recently said Mesa needs to do a better job of advertising accomplishments in addressing illegal immigration through routine police work. He recently pointed to a record of 1,200 arrests of illegals in the past year, and follow-ups on 60 alleged drop houses.
Over and over, city leaders praise Gascón's emphasis on community policing and preventive efforts. He was known for reaching out to the community and at-risk populations to avoid crimes.
Mesa Arts Center director Johann Zietsmann and Gascón have collaborated to try to put together youth and arts programs to serve at-risk teens, for instance, so they don't join gangs. Zietsmann is confident the initiatives will continue, but he hopes a new chief would be as collaborative and would understand the need for such programs.
Austin also hopes the new chief will espouse Gascón's principles such as community policing and getting residents involved in crime fighting.
"George understood very well crime is not just a policing issue, it's a community issue," said Austin.