The way Joany Titherington tells it, her Oak Park Neighborhood Association is a tough crowd: Members are diverse and outspoken, demanding honest answers to hard questions. It can be a tricky audience for police.
But Sam Somers Jr., then a captain overseeing Sacramento's southern command, handled the task with grace, Titherington said.
"We don't ... let folks off easily here, but he did a fantastic job," said Titherington, who worked with Somers from 2004 to 2006. "It wasn't just placating the community. We created some real solutions."
Now that Somers is Sacramento's chief of police, Titherington said she expects him to show the same sensitivity and deftness in addressing the varied needs of a growing city and its people.
Those skills are likely to be key as the Sacramento Police Department enters a new phase of growth after years of sharp cuts. In 2008, the agency reached a peak staffing level of about 800 officers; it has since shed more than 150 officers and $40 million.
An infusion of cash from the voter-approved Measure U sales-tax increase will help reverse that trend. The department will reap enough money to hire as many as 120 to 150 new recruits - though they won't all be on the streets until the end of 2014.
In rebuilding the department, Somers will be expected to address the latest crime trends and the demands of residents eager for results: Violent and property crimes rose last year for the first time in six years.
"It is a tough position because people want it turned around real quick, and it takes time to hire," Somers said. "It's about patience. In the meantime, we need to just make sure we're vigilant with what we're doing."
A legacy of police work
At 50, Somers is a 29-year veteran of the department and a Sacramento native. Raised in the Northgate neighborhood, he graduated from Encina High and Sacramento State before graduate studies at CSU Long Beach.
Like his predecessor, Rick Braziel, Somers is part of a family legacy: His father, Sam Somers Sr., retired in 1992 as a captain after 30 years with the department.
Somers spent his childhood wandering in and out of police stations, riding with his father or listening to the police radio when the elder Somers came home for dinner.
There is a pattern of public service in the family. One uncle served in the military, another as a Stockton firefighter. His sister works for the Sacramento Fire Department.
"Maybe it's just in the DNA," he said.
But Somers said he didn't seriously consider a career in law enforcement until he was a college student and went on his first ride-along with an officer who wasn't his father. His interest was cemented after he took a job as a community service officer in 1984. "You kind of catch the bug," he said.
In his career, Somers has served in every major division of the department. When Braziel retired in December, Somers was the longest-serving deputy chief, overseeing patrol and dispatch operations. Three other colleagues also applied for the top post: Deputy Chiefs Brian Louie and Dana Matthes and Capt. Jim Maccoun.
Several community members involved in the selection process said all the candidates were regarded as capable of doing the job.
But in announcing Somers' appointment in February, City Manager John Shirey said Somers had qualities beyond his résumé. "Not only does Sam have the breadth and depth of experience, he's got the mettle for the job," Shirey said.
Those who know Somers describe him as direct, a straight shooter.
"I would say he's decisive," said Dustin Smith, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association.
Smith said Somers has been regarded as fair and thoughtful with disciplinary issues, and that he encourages innovation. As a whole, union members are pleased with the choice, he said.
"I believe he's very approachable," Smith said. "Most of the officers feel they can bring any ideas or concerns or projects to him."
Also like Braziel, Somers remains a dues-paying member of the POA, though the union doesn't represent command staff.
He described the choice as symbolic. "I put on the same uniform that my officers do," he said. "I may not get any benefits out of it, but ... I'm letting them know I'm still an officer at heart."
Observers agree that Somers is not expected to be a huge departure from Braziel. After all, Somers was closely involved in much of the decision-making during his predecessor's term.
"I would be surprised if he were looking for major changes," Smith said.
Unlike Braziel, Somers is starting his tenure with the promise of expansion, though he has emphasized that the department must continue to be lean and efficient.
That conservative tone struck a chord with Luis Sumpter, president of the Alkali & Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association board. Sumpter served on a community panel during the candidate review process.
"He has a strong desire to restore services, but it's not back to business as usual," Sumpter said. "They want to be creative with how they restore services ... so there's still an understanding of how to control spending."
The first Police Academy class paid for by Measure U revenue won't start until summer, so Somers hasn't yet begun restoring services previously cut. But he has indicated a few plans, including beefing up patrol ranks and bringing back motorcycle units, which provide traffic enforcement as well as added visibility on the streets.
Above all else, Somers said, his goal as chief is to make Sacramento a safer place.
"How do I make it a better place to live?" he asked. "What difference can I make?"
Somers said years of budget cuts have hamstrung his agency's ability to respond to the uptick in crime. Nevertheless, he said, that can't be an excuse for not acting.
One of Somers' most notable visions expressed to date involves incorporating the "problem-oriented policing" philosophy into patrol.
"POP" officers, though popular, are expensive and often among the first on the chopping block for cash-strapped law enforcement agencies. Sacramento cut its POP program years ago, and Somers has no immediate plans to restore it.
But he said he hopes to reintegrate that idea into patrol by adding resources to free up officers for community-building efforts, such as attending neighborhood association meetings. And every watch commander is now being assigned two patrol beats on which they are expected to be experts.
Somers calls the model "geographic" policing, and envisions it as a way to better connect individual officers with their communities.
"They're like a little mini chief in a particular area, where they're going to have some accountability and responsibility," he said.
Somers also is working on a new program called "Cops and Clergy," a combined enforcement and intervention effort that partners police with the city's faith-based leaders. Somers said an overarching goal is building community relationships, including those with minority populations.
"The bottom line is trust," Somers said, "and getting that opportunity to demonstrate that ... our officers are here to protect and serve, not just to arrest and incarcerate."
He also hopes the program will help the department diversify its force.
Lack of minority representation on the force is not a new issue. But the city manager has made it clear that increasing diversity is one of his main expectations of Somers.
Almost three-fourths of the police force is white, according to recent statistics. By contrast, whites make up just 32 percent of the city's population, census data show.
Somers said it ultimately comes down to bringing in more minority applicants. That means building relationships, a challenge that will require time, he said.
"Some of my initiatives are long term; this is one of them," Somers said.
Titherington, the Oak Park activist, said Somers' desire to engage the community came through in his time dealing with her neighborhood and, more recently, in the interview process.
"We can't be silos any more," she said. "Without the community and other organizations around us working in concert with one another, it's really difficult to problem-solve."
And, for old times' sake, Titherington invited Somers back to an Oak Park Neighborhood Association meeting.
Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.