Thursday, April 9, 2009
T aking the podium after his April 6 swearing-in ceremony, Police Chief Louis Fetherolf described himself as a pair of fresh legs in a race against Salinas’ crime. “I see myself as a runner in a race, a race I know we are going to win,” he said.
But while Fetherolf brings new confidence and tougher talk to the post, it’s too early to judge whether Salinas will gain any more ground in its marathon pursuit of peace.
So far, Fetherolf hasn’t deviated much from City Hall rhetoric, saying that the gang war won’t be settled quickly; federal, state and county resources are needed; and the community must unite. Unlike his predecessor Dan Ortega, however, who routinely put responsibility on residents for not giving information and protecting gang members, Fetherolf says the police department will lead the charge. He says police must rebuild trust with the community. His first step will be learning how the department operates and within 90 days coming up with a plan for addressing crime and then relaying that to residents.
“It’s going to be a long-term effort, and it will yield long-term results,” he says. “It’s like a huge elephant. You can’t consume the elephant in one bite. You got to start taking little bites but overtime we’ll consume the elephant.”
Fetherolf takes over as police chief amid a menacing shooting spree that has claimed 12 lives this year. The 62-year-old black belt, who gave up his khaki Riverside County Sheriff Department uniform for black Salinas stripes, says he plans to aggressively go after gang members, pursuing court injunctions and racketeering charges against organized crime syndicates, and also push for cops to work closer with the community.
While Ortega had previously said community policing wasn’t possible with a small authorized force of 187 officers, city leaders expect Fetherolf to reshuffle the budget and make it happen.
“We are short of officers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put a group of officers out there once or twice a week to do community policing,” says Councilman Steve Villegas, adding that reducing overtime might free up money for more cops on the street.
City Manager Artie Fields expects Fetherolf to be a visible leader, using his Spanish skills to reach out to all segments of Salinas. “If [residents] have confidence in him I think we will see more people coming forward,” Fields says.
Fetherolf also inherits the fallout of two questionable officer-involved shootings currently under review by the District Attorney’s Office. While Fetherolf indicated he wouldn’t reopen specific cases, he says he will be reviewing the use of lethal force along with all other department policies: “We need to make sure we are doing absolutely everything that we possibly can to honor the trust given to us as enforcers of the law.”
Fetherolf admits he doesn’t have a magic wand to wave over the city to reduce crime. “I have a lot of energy and fire in my belly to get out there and make a difference in our community,” he said.
Salinas leaders hope he has the oomph to turn the city’s trot against gangs into a sprint.