As the “Happiest Town in the World,” San Luis Obispo sure has more volcanic activity and turbulence than less happy towns. During the last few weeks, the city police chief was first put on administrative leave and later fired; the San Luis Obispo Symphony Board of Directors abruptly and unceremoniously fired the revered symphony conductor who had served in that capacity for 31 years; and the city fathers (in old England there were no city mothers) had a full-day retreat, facilitated by a professional, to learn the good manners and polite behavior necessary for orderly City Council meetings. If your head is spinning from this avalanche of happiness in the paradise, you are not alone. To prevent indigestion, let us focus only on the saga of the San Luis Obispo police chief.
San Luis Obispo hired Steve Gesell as the chief of police in early 2012. For almost three years he wisely kept a low profile. All that changed quickly when his viewpoint appeared in Dec. 3, 2014, issue of The Tribune. The article started a flurry of controversy that continued for months. In the article, Gesell chastised the public for a lack of respect for law enforcement. The article convinced many readers that for the official position he was in, Gesell was incorrigibly out of touch with societal realities.
Some, including myself, found this statement especially egregious: “I can’t recall how many times I’ve read or heard, ‘white officer who shot unarmed black teen’ in the media over the past three months. This implies to some that race was a factor.” Those who keep up to date with the news are cognizant of the fact that perilous tension exists between police and African American citizens nationwide. There is an observable pattern of unarmed black suspects being killed by police officers. Either denial or ignorance of this fact is truly astounding and totally inexcusable for someone in a leadership position in law enforcement.
Sadly, it is not just the police. Our criminal justice system also makes an objective observer question whether justice is color blind. The latest tragic episode in this continuum is the acquittal of a Cleveland police officer on May 23. A black couple’s beat-up car backfired, and the police mistook it for a gunshot. After a chase that involved 62 marked and unmarked police cars, 13 cops fired a total of 137 shots at the couple. The acquitted police officer, Michael Berlo, alone fired 49 shots, including 15 while standing on the hood of suspects’ automobile, according to prosecutors. The black man was shot 23 times and the black woman 24 times. One could reasonably argue that the police had no interest in arresting the unarmed black couple, but rather killing them there and then. Sadly, both victims were mentally ill and homeless.
There is a fundamental maxim that the police’s job is to arrest a suspect who allegedly committed a crime, and then present the evidence to the prosecutors. Only the court has the legal authority to determine guilt or innocence. If the accused is found guilty, it is the court that decides the punishment.
Some other incidents also raise questions about Gesell’s personal ethics and his competency to lead the police department.
Gesell claimed and received travel expense reimbursements for items that were apparently in violation of the city’s written travel policies. Last February, Director of Finance Wayne Padilla stated that Gesell’s travel expense review had prompted city staff to recommend changes to the city’s travel procedures. In response to an inquiry from me, Padilla recently sent an email outlining the changes that have already been made to ensure that proper checks and balances are in place. “Staff is developing an updated travel policy that will provide clearer direction on the use of the dollar limits that are contained in the policy and all staff will be trained on the proper methods for employing the policy in the near future,” Padilla stated in the email.
Gesell’s competency as the police chief, or lack thereof, was apparent by the unpreparedness of the San Luis Obispo Police Department for a “St. Fratty’s Day” gathering near Cal Poly’s campus in March. Approximately 3,000 students and other young individuals came to a party very early in the morning. When the first calls came into the police at 4:35 a.m. about a large party, there were only five patrol officers on duty. Gesell later explained that it had been planned to have below-normal number of officers on duty during the day because the police department was expecting several parties that night. “We were not prepared for it,” he said.
Gesell was asked if police responded quickly enough to the report that there were tens of students on the garage roof 17 minutes before it collapsed. Gesell responded, “There is currently no legal remedy to order them off the roof. And then you are talking about infusing a few cops into a live mob, each with a liability on their hip—their gun.” What shining examples of professionalism and taking personal responsibility; it would make Buck-Stops-Here President Truman proud.
On Gesell’s watch, his staff started what could be perceived as an illegal ticket and arrest quota scheme with a pizza party as the reward. On Feb. 13, officers were asked to make five driving-under-the-influence (DUI) arrests during the shift. In an email at the end of the shift, Sgt. John Villanti wrote that the officers stayed busy all night, “It should be noted that the watch fulfilled a challenge set in the beginning of the rotation by Sgt. Gillham. He offered to provide a pizza party if the watch arrested five DUIs in a night.”
Setting ticket quotas is against laws of the State of California. Calling a ticket and arrest quota a “challenge” does not make it legal. In essence, one could conclude that Gesell’s command staff was committing an illegal act. Consider the diabolicalness of the situation: Police officers sworn to uphold the law are arresting those breaking the law, while at the same time breaking the law themselves.
The New Times obtained a copy of the email Gesell sent to the police department staff in February. He confidently stated in the email, “I have no plans to separate from the city and expect nothing more than to continue to serve as part of our stellar SLOPD team and wonderful city.” Gesell’s overconfidence in his own invulnerability is telling. His tenure as the police chief ended on May 29.
In a news release, City Manager Katie Lichtig stated, “to reach peak performance, the city manager and police chief need to be in complete alignment.” Here’s one translation: Gesell, as the police chief, did not follow the rules he was expected to follow in his working relationship with the boss, the city manager. The common term for such conduct is insubordination.
Finally, let this be a reminder to all those in public service. The position of a public servant does not lend itself to pomposity or self-aggrandizement. Any thought of being high-and-mighty is pure delusion. And any fall from grace can swiftly result in reversal of fortunes and bring the day of reckoning. Humility is a good trait for all, especially for those in public service, regardless of their position.
Zaf Iqbal is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. He volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Child Development Resource Center of the Central Coast. He’s past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.