Last year, when the suspect in the shooting of a Twin Rivers School Department police officer died in the custody of Sacramento city police, parts of Del Paso Heights roiled with suspicion. More than 100 people gathered at a community meeting to vent their anger. Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel attended with his entire command staff. They endured two hours of mostly misdirected venom.
Chief Braziel, who had been out of town when the death occurred, kept his composure. He defended his officers, promised a full accounting and also admitted that his department erred by not being forthcoming about the in-custody death immediately after it happened.
The chief's appearance before the angry crowd that night, his coolness under fire and his willingness to publicly acknowledge mistakes were vintage Braziel. It explains why he is so widely respected by the public he serves, the officers he leads and the city manager and council members who, now that Braziel has announced his retirement at year's end, face the task of replacing him.
Braziel's 2008 ascension to the Sacramento's top cop spot could not have come at a more difficult time. The global recession was just starting. City and state tax revenue plummeted, forcing deep budget cuts. During Braziel's five-year tenure the department lost 151 sworn officers and more than 200 civilian employees, fully one-third of the department's workforce. He adjusted in innovative ways.
A big proponent of technology, he upgraded in-car computers so that officers now have instantaneous information about crimes and suspects, increasing their efficiency and effectiveness. Detectives who were returned to patrol because of budget cuts became mentors to younger officers, bringing experience and deep know-how about narcotics or vice investigations to the patrol ranks. The chief himself regularly goes on patrol, not just to observe but to work alongside rank-and-file officers, responding to crimes, writing reports and absorbing those line officers' input.
Even as he was losing patrol officers, Braziel was conscious of the need to replenish his command staff to prepare for succession. Alarmed that so many were approaching retirement age, he successfully sought funding last year for three new captain positions and two deputy chiefs. The strong bench he's built will make it easier to find an experienced successor from within the department, something City Manager John Shirey says he wants to do.
Braziel's successor will face challenges. The new chief will have to confront an uptick in crime, perhaps the result of budget cuts, the tough economy, changing demographics no one knows for sure.
A recent story in the New York Times focused on Sacramento's crime problems, and in it, Braziel expressed frustration but also noted it goes with the territory.
"I could cry all day long about the budget cuts and the 30 percent and the loss of people and everything else," Braziel told the Times. "But it doesn't do any good because you get dealt a hand of cards with a budget crisis and you're playing stud poker you can't give back the cards and say deal me two or three more."
No one knows what kind of hand the new chief will face in years ahead. But the job will be made easier by a legacy of innovative police leadership under Chief Braziel.