Former Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas is the top candidate to become the Santa Rosa Junior College’s next police chief, college officials said Friday.

Dueñas, 52, swiftly became a forerunner among 16 applicants for the job, and is now undergoing a background check, SRJC President Frank Chong said. The college has not made an offer to Dueñas, but he is the clear choice, Chong said.

Dueñas would be SRJC’s third police chief in five years. The district has struggled to find a long-term chief following the 2010 retirement of Terry Stewart, who ran the Police Department for 34 years. The department has been dogged by a series of controversies, including the conviction of an officer for embezzling parking fees.

The college launched a search for a new police chief in May after the abrupt departure of Matt McCaffrey, a retired Sonoma County sheriff’s captain, who ran the district department for 2½ years. McCaffrey took a job with the Novato Police Department.

Robert Brownlee, a sergeant with 10 years at the department, has been serving as the interim chief.

Dueñas is a Santa Rosa native and SRJC graduate. He retired from the Sheriff’s Office last year after 25 years with the department. He served in the Marine Corps for six years before studying at SRJC and started his law enforcement career with the Healdsburg Police Department.

A hiring committee made up of faculty, administrative staff and a student interviewed three of the 16 candidates, who applied from all over the country. Dueñas was the sole candidate invited to participate in a public question-and-answer forum in August.

“He’s a local person, he’s a graduate of the JC and he’s had a distinguished career in law enforcement,” Chong said. “Plus, he is very active in the community.”

Also important was his interest in holding the job for some time, according to Chong.

“I hope we have a great police chief for many years to come,” Chong said.

Dueñas couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.