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Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said Tuesday he will retire in December after nearly 31 years with the Police Department, including 4? years in the city's top post.

Schwedhelm, 53, spent his entire career with Santa Rosa police and was tasked with leading the department through a time of financial uncertainty and divisiveness in the ranks.

Schwedhelm will step down Dec. 20 with no immediate plans for his retirement, the chief said.

"I could have retired a year ago; this just seemed to be the right time for me and my family," Schwedhelm said.

The city is gearing up to launch an executive search for Schwedhelm's successor, a process that will involve recruiting candidates from both inside the Police Department and without, City Manager Kathy Millison said. The search is expected to take at least five months.

Schwedhelm said he and Millison are discussing how to handle the interim between Dec. 20 and when a new chief begins.

Under Schwedhelm, the next line of command staff are captains Hank Schreeder and Craig Schwartz, veterans on the force who were hired out of other departments in 1991 and 1992.

Schwedhelm said multiple people in the department have expressed interest in the chief's position and he hoped that a candidate would come from within, although it will not be his decision.

"I feel very comfortable (retiring) because I promoted just about everyone here," Schwedhelm said. "We spent a lot of time on succession planning, and there are qualified people throughout the organization."

Schwedhelm was the first chief since 1940 to be hired from within the department. He was chosen, in part, because of his long-standing ties to the community and embrace of community-based policing.

Millison credited Schwedhelm with ingraining neighborhood policing in the department's philosophy and being a willing collaborator within the city and county.

After the state was ordered to shift a whole set of offenders from state prison and parole systems to county jurisdiction, Millison said Schwedhelm was a creative force within the local team addressing the change.

"Tom Schwedhelm has been an outstanding leader," Millison said.

Schwedhelm was hired by the Santa Rosa Police Department in January 1983 and, after graduating from the Santa Rosa Junior College Police Academy, was sworn in as an officer in April 1983.

He started as a beat cop and was promoted through the ranks, with a variety of patrol and investigative assignments including supervisor of the sex crimes and family violence team and a dozen years with the SWAT unit.

On the side, he continued his own education, earning an associate degree in Criminal Justice from Santa Rosa Junior College, a bachelor's degree in management from St. Mary's College and a masters in psychology from Sonoma State University.

Schwedhelm twice served as interim chief before he was officially appointed to the position in 2009. At that time, the city was grappling with a multi-million dollar deficit and looking for cuts from within every department.

Schwedhelm oversaw cuts to non-sworn posts, including crime analyst and victim outreach positions, as well as the loss of sworn positions through attrition. He also later oversaw federal grants that allowed him to restore many of the non-sworn positions.

"I think we are in a good place; we are not on fire," he said.

Schwedhelm's annual salary is $192,408 plus a yearly uniform allowance of $875, human services director Fran Elm said.

He is eligible to retire with 3 percent of his pay for every year worked, which computes to 90 percent of his highest year's compensation.

Schwedhelm, an avid cyclist who rode as an official marshal for Saturday's GranFondo, said he plans to spend a lot of time outdoors and learn how to live without expecting constant urgent phone calls.

Schwedhelm said that while he would entertain opportunities that took him out of the area for durations of time, he and his wife Jackie plan to stay in Santa Rosa.

"Santa Rosa is our home," Schwedhelm said.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.