Influx of new leaders at the top of Sonoma County law enforcement

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Law enforcement leadership in flux

New leaders

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick

Rohnert Park Director of Public Safety Tim Mattos

Santa Rosa CHP Commander Aristotle Wolfe

Windsor Police Chief Ruben Martinez

Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez

Sonoma State University Police Chief David Dougherty

Santa Rosa Junior College Police Chief Robert Brownlee

Pending/current leadership vacancies

Santa Rosa Police Department

Cloverdale Police Department

Sonoma County is experiencing unprecedented turnover at the top of its law enforcement agencies, with new or pending leadership changes at four of its five largest departments and altogether nine new or soon-to-be new chiefs across all 13 agencies.

The changes include the county’s largest single agency, the Sheriff’s Office, with Sheriff Mark Essick now in his fifth month on the job. They extend to Rohnert Park Chief Tim Mattos and Santa Rosa CHP Commander Ari Wolfe, who also started in January. Windsor will have a new chief this week and Santa Rosa is expected to need one by August with the pending retirement of Hank Schreeder.

Three other chiefs started top jobs last July, in Sonoma and at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. Cloverdale is in the process of hiring a permanent chief of police.

Sonoma County last witnessed a nearly comparable turnover in law enforcement leadership about a decade ago, when more than half of the area’s chiefs left their posts over the course of a few months.

The greater ongoing shift comes as shorter tenures for police chiefs become the new norm statewide, a trend driven in part by lucrative retirement benefits that allow top police officials to retire around age 50 with their maximum pension, as most have close to 30 years of work history at that point.

With many chiefs close to retirement age by the time they are qualified to lead a department, contracts for the top job are typically for short terms, veterans in the field say. Plus, the demands of an increasingly political job — even for police chiefs, all of whom are appointed in the county — also have influenced the quicker and more widespread turnover.

“We’re moving into a window when the longest tenure in the county is going to be in the single digits,” said Jeff Weaver, who retired in 2017 after 14 years as Sebastopol’s police chief.

Until the past decade or so, officials occupying top law enforcement jobs have tended to stay in their posts for far longer, some for decades. There was Santa Rosa Police Chief Dutch Flohr serving for 34 years, followed by Chief Sal Rosano, who was in the job for 22 years. Several recent Sonoma County sheriffs have served multiple four-year terms including Bill Cogbill and the late Mark Ihde, who left after seven years for health reasons.

But those longer runs in office are now more the exception, and repercussions can be far reaching on public life. Community members and civic leaders must connect anew every time a different face moves into the top law enforcement job, even when that person has risen through the ranks.

And new leaders can come with vastly different priorities and management styles, exposing communities and their police departments to a more frequent zig-zag in leadership.

“There can be a certain amount of anxiety when a police department is changing police chiefs,” said Healdsburg Chief Kevin Burke. He is the longest serving active chief in the county, with nearly nine years on the job.

“Ideally a police chief should stay longer than three years,” Burke said. “Excessive turnover can be a real challenge for a department and stability in the community. Stability at that rank is really important.”

Law enforcement leadership in flux

New leaders

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick

Rohnert Park Director of Public Safety Tim Mattos

Santa Rosa CHP Commander Aristotle Wolfe

Windsor Police Chief Ruben Martinez

Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez

Sonoma State University Police Chief David Dougherty

Santa Rosa Junior College Police Chief Robert Brownlee

Pending/current leadership vacancies

Santa Rosa Police Department

Cloverdale Police Department

Statewide, there are 332 police chiefs, with an average age of 48, and 40 to 50 chiefs retiring each year, said Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence, the head of the California Police Chiefs Association.

“In this profession as a police chief, the tremendous pressure and complexity of the role really puts a lot of strain on the individual,” Lawrence said. “The downside is right about when a police chief hits their stride and gets comfortable and good at what they’re doing, they are eligible to retire.”

Efforts to fill those posts can be expensive and bruising for municipal leaders, with a selection process that in many cases must have greater public input and scrutiny over past experience and future direction.

To find Schreeder’s successor, Santa Rosa has hired a recruitment firm for as much as $27,000 to conduct a nationwide search.

“It’s going to have so much impact on the city of Santa Rosa there has to be a thoughtful, strategic selection process,” said Amy Reeve, Santa Rosa’s human resources director. Santa Rosa Police Capt. Ray Navarro confirmed late last month he would apply for the post.

Reeve said the “robust” effort to pick the next chief would include extensive interviews and community meetings and input with a goal of having the next chief in place by mid-summer.

Rohnert Park just completed its own hiring process with the appointment of Mattos, who replaced Chief Brian Masterson, the 10-year director of the department who retired abruptly last year amid turmoil at the agency. Rohnert Park City Manager Darrin Jenkins called the effort of selecting a new chief “perhaps the most important hire a city manager makes.”

While Mattos, 55, has agreed to stay for three years, the city is hoping for five, Jenkins said.

Mattos came to Rohnert Park after 10 years at the Suisun City Police Department, three and a half of which he spent as chief. He said the challenge of leading a new and slightly larger department drew him to the job. His first priority has been to get to know the department.

“I’m now, I think, starting to come up for air,” Mattos said in April. “A majority of my time here has been working from the inside out.”

Among the new names in Sonoma County’s chiefs group, all but one — Mattos — have risen through the ranks of local law enforcement. Succession planning in the past several years has become paramount for agencies who hope to keep some consistency and avoid an unwanted shake-up at the top.

And while that helps with community and staff familiarity, it’s still a huge change to be number one, no matter how much preparation you do, several chiefs said.

“Even though I did my best to prepare and had a chief who did his best to help me prepare, it’s very different being the second in command and being first in command,” said Sebastopol Chief James Conner, who has been on the job about 1½ years. “You think you understand it but you really don’t ... until you sit in the chair,” said Schreeder, who formally took over in 2015 after the retirement of Chief Tom Schwedhelm, now Santa Rosa’s mayor.

Help is available from the state chiefs’ association, which offers classes for prospective leaders and new chiefs, Lawrence said.

The Sonoma County’s Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, which meets monthly, serves as another forum for local leaders, new and seasoned alike, to talk about pressing issues impacting their communities. Topics for the long-standing group have included the countywide protocol for an officer-involved shooting, changes in marijuana legalization and the implementation of Senate Bill 1421, which mandates the public disclosure of certain internal police records.

Cloverdale’s interim Chief Bob Stewart, who was chief in Cotati for 13 years, recalled an era when veteran leaders Rosano and Ihde headed the chiefs’ group.

“You had some real stability and seniority, not just a few years, but people who had been on the job for a long time,” he said.

Time together will improve the cohesion, Stewart said. “I think the only impact is we don’t know each other yet.”

Several outgoing and new chiefs said they anticipated the impact of the turnover at the top would be minor. Veteran peers in the county, such as Burke, and others in the state would help the new officials come up to speed, they said.

“For the most part we’re all working toward the same goal. We’re trying to promote public safety, and everybody’s got a slight difference in how they do it,” said Essick.

With just over two years on in the job, Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano is a relative veteran in the field of newly minted law enforcement leaders. He worked his way through Petaluma’s ranks and sees the changing of the guard as necessary and helpful.

“When you have new leadership and you have new perspectives, new ideas,” Savano said. “That’s a beneficial thing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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