Salinas’ new police chief pledges to build a safer city.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Afew years before Louis Fetherolf became police chief for suburban Lake Elsinore, Mayor Bob Magee says, it took 40 minutes for a squad car to respond to a shooting on his block. “I ran for office because my son witnessed a walk-by shooting in broad daylight,” Magee recalls.
Although it took political will to double the police budget during Fetherolf’s tenure, Magee credits the chief with restoring public safety to the Riverside County city. “What I saw was a guy who came into a department that was understaffed, and he helped staff it up and get some programs going that helped curtail and reduce crime,” Magee says.
“I’M A WARRIOR LEADER. I HAVE BEEN ALL MY LIFE.”
Fetherolf left a lasting legacy in Lake Elsinore and in nearby Wildomar, where he helped form the city’s police department. The 41-year police veteran has earned the dual reputation as hard-nosed reformer and savvy community leader. And now Fetherolf, who says he thrives on challenges, has found his pre-retirement gig as Salinas’ new police chief.
Fetherolf is leaving a cushy job supervising courts in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to lead a gritty fight against Salinas gangs. City Manager Artie Fields hired him for his neighborhood-oriented style and tough-on-gangs approach. “I’m a warrior leader,” Fetherolf says. “I have been all my life.”
He started his career in 1968 as a Los Angeles police officer, patrolling dangerous beats such as south-central and east L.A. As a chief bouncing around from small police departments in Nevada, Utah and Southern California, he wasn’t afraid to shake up cop shops.
Police rebelled against Fetherolf’s leadership in Springville, Utah, and six dispatchers filed sexual-harassment complaints against him in the mid ’90s. The state investigated and eventually cleared Fetherolf of misconduct. Still, Fetherolf quit: “I resigned from that police department because the city was not willing to deal with the corruption that was existing.”
Fetherolf also dismisses a 1999 harassment suit filed against him and other Coachella police officers by a female sergeant. “If you are in this position and you are doing anything significant, you are not going to please everyone,” he says. “I move things forward on an ethical, moral straight line, and people not willing to deal with that become casualties along the way.”
From his experience in Southern California, he also is accustomed to dealing with gangs. While Lake Elsinore’s gang problem pales in comparison to Salinas’ entrenched rivalry, Magee says Fetherolf’s force routinely talked with gang leaders to curtail retaliatory shootings. “He and his officers were very active in trying to prevent further gang violence,” Magee says.
Magee says he was also impressed by Fetherolf’s hands-on manner: The chief met with neighbors concerned about crime, and used his Spanish skills to talk with day laborers about how not to disrupt downtown businesses.
“This isn’t a guy that is going to sit behind the desk and push buttons,” Magee says.
In Riverside County he was active in Rotary and Cops for Kids, a charitable group for needy children. He also holds a black belt in karate and plays mandolin and banjo in a bluegrass band. Fetherolf calls himself “a young 62” and says he plans to work another six to eight years as chief of Salinas PD.
In his new post, Fetherolf will be tasked with tackling Salinas’ crime – which reached a peak level of 25 homicides last year, and 12 so far this year – with an understaffed department in the midst of a recession. He’s also expected to lead a new community policing initiative. “Everyone has got high hopes that he can bring new vision and energy, understanding that he is dealing with that same deck of cards that can only be shuffled so many ways,” says Salinas Police Cmdr. Kelly McMillin.
Ninety days after his April 6 start date, the new chief plans to release a new policing strategy, and another plan after six months. Fetherolf says it’s critical to reach out all Salinas residents, about 70 percent of whom are Latino. “I’ve got to be able to communicate, and more than just communicate. They need to know I’m sincere,” he says. “They need to know my heart is in the right place.”
Although his past assignments have included weeding out crooked cops, Mayor Dennis Donohue adamantly says that is not the case in Salinas. “The Salinas Police Department doesn’t need to be cleaned up,” he says.
Like his predecessor Dan Ortega, Fetherolf says the battle with gangs cannot be won quickly, but he expects to build a safer city during his time in Salinas. “This is an opportunity to get integrated in a community, deal with tough issues, get connected with the greater law enforcement community, [and] bring those resources to bear on the problems. So by the time I’m ready to hand this baton off to my successor, I’m going to have a community I’m willing to live in and stay in.”