Petaluma’s new police chief has many plans for the department, including smaller beats that give officers a chance to develop a rapport with a specific neighborhood, more focus on code enforcement and a mentoring program to nurture the next generation of sergeants, lieutenants and captains.
Since starting August 13, Chief Patrick Williams has been busy holding one-on-one meetings with sworn staff to hear their thoughts about what’s working and what needs improvement.
He has also put out a memo outlining his vision for the 84-member department, where morale has been low in recent years due to budget cuts, low salaries (at least compared to surrounding cities) and factions that formed over the appointment of the chief’s position.
Central to that vision is community policing, a style of law enforcement where officers work with residents, business owners, nonprofits and clergy to tackle various issues.
“We’ve got a great shop here and also a lot of smart people in the community,” says the 48-year-old Williams who spent five years as police chief in Desert Hot Springs, a town of about 28,000 in the Coachella Valley. “We need to leverage our relationships to attract more volunteers to the department, whether it’s at the front desk, traffic unit or detectives, and collaborate with community groups to solve problems.”
One of Williams’ hopes is to divide police beats into smaller sectors, assign specific officers to those areas and organize community meetings twice a year in each area to give residents a direct outlet to voice their concerns. Officers would then work to solve the problems and report back four to six months later.
It’s the same approach Williams used in Desert Hot Springs, where he is credited with reducing crime and restoring the public’s trust in the police department.
“Our city has a history of high crime rate and there is a lot of appreciation of what he did to get that down and get it down significantly,” said Russell Betts, a Desert Hot Springs councilman. “He runs a tight ship and zeroes in on a problem and gets it fixed.”
Under Williams’ leadership, the police department launched an iPhone app that allowed residents to report a crime right from their phones and started a committee aimed at addressing gang involvement among youth.
Williams, who has a master’s degree in leadership from St. Mary’s College, is thoughtful and favors a methodical approach to issues. But he’s also not afraid of getting tough when required.
In Desert Hot Springs, one of the things locals still talk about is Operation Falling Sun, a multi-agency gang sweep that involved nearly 700 officers and arrested more than 100 gang members.
“Gangs are not just a policing issue, but a community issue that needs an approach from schools, churches and organizations,” says Williams, adding that he is still familiarizing himself with the extent of Petaluma’s gang problem.
The new chief also inherits a department where a quarter of all sworn officers will be eligible for retirement in less than five years. To prepare for the retirement of older personnel, Williams wants to implement a mentoring program that to train officers who are interested in promoting to higher ranks.
“Being able to impact the leadership structure in the department is an attractive part of the job for me,” he says.
Williams also wants to find a way to get officers back into local schools (for which funding was eliminated two years ago) and be more proactive when it comes to code enforcement.
Yet his arrival in Petaluma has not been without controversy with a federal lawsuit being filed just days after he accepted the job. The suit alleges that Williams discouraged a female officer from cooperating with FBI investigators on an excessive force case and scolded her when he found out that she had spoken with federal agents. (The excessive abuse occurred before Williams arrived to the department in 2007.)
He has also been criticized for taking too long to conduct an investigation into a “sexting” incident in which a police officer sent a photo of his genitals to a female colleague.
Williams says he never obstructed the investigation and that there is more to the “sexting” incident that the public knows, but that he can’t discuss it because it was a personnel matter.
“I have secret FBI clearance and have been investigated so many times,” he says, clearly exasperated. “Do you think if I had obstructed an FBI investigation, I’d be sitting here talking to you?...It just flies in the face of everything that I stand for.”
As Williams walks a reporter out of his office, he passes by his white board, on which he is fond of drawing diagrams and writing reminder notes. On the very top is one of his mottos, scribbled in a red pen that seems apt given the accusations swirling around him: “Secrecy is the enemy of trust.”