A lost bike that led to a badge: Interim Sacramento police Chief Brian Louie

Sacramento Police Department interim police Chief Brian Louie talks with The Bee Friday in Sacramento.
Sacramento Police Department interim police Chief Brian Louie talks with The Bee Friday in Sacramento. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

It was metallic blue bike with a white banana seat that first made interim police Chief Brian Louie want to be a cop.

He was a sixth-grader in Stockton riding with a friend in the elementary school yard when a pair of neighborhood bullies spotted them. His friend got away, but the boys cornered Louie and stole the Schwinn. A bigger friend got it back for him, but it’s “always stuck with me, what it felt like to be a victim,” he said. “Sometimes I get a little choked up when I tell that story.”

With 36 years at the Sacramento Police Department, including time on the SWAT team, Louie is tougher than he was back then. But he still faces challenges.

In December, Louie was tapped to temporarily lead the police after former Chief Sam Somers Jr. retired at the end of a tough year. Two officer-involved shootings in 2016 left the department on the defensive. Community members questioned its tactics, and city leaders passed extensive reforms in recent months to force more accountability and transparency. Internally, morale is bad, he acknowledges. Officers have been leaving for other nearby departments where the pay is better.

Despite all that, Louie wants the job on a permanent basis.

“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity,” Louie said on Friday, sitting in an office that still has former chief Somers’ name by the door. It’s the third time he’s tried for the chief’s seat. Rick Braziel was chosen in 2008, and Somers in 2013. The city is conducting a national search for the position, and a final decision is expected around summer.

Louie is using these months to make changes he said he’s long wanted but lacked the power to implement. At a City Council meeting last week, he announced that the department would put 10 officers back into problem-oriented policing, a popular neighborhood-based program that the council supports. He also backed increased crisis intervention training for officers.

He sat down with The Sacramento Bee to talk about what he’s doing, what his vision is and what he hopes to accomplish before a final decision is made.

“I walk the talk,” he said. “I’m given this opportunity as interim; let me show people what really I can do.”

Q: How is the department different from when you started to where you are now? How has the interaction with the Police Department and the city changed?

A: I think we still have our challenges with trust. You look at what’s going on every day here and you read about trust. I will tell you, as a young officer going to court and testifying, pretty much the jury would generally side with the officer and believe what they said. Now it’s a lot more questions, a lot more scrutiny in terms of what they are saying and all that. And, obviously, we have technology now, and that helps. Whether it’s in car cameras, soon to be body-worn cameras, all those things are good.

Q: How are you different as a leader than Sam (Somers Jr., former police chief)?

A: Just different styles … Sam liked to roll up his sleeves and get in there. I do too, to a certain extent. But I kind of pull myself back and say, “OK, I have good people. I need to trust them and let them do their thing,” because otherwise, if I try to do everything, that’s not good.

Q: How is your vision for the department different?

A: The big thing is I think the youth, community stuff. … My definition of prevention is a little earlier, like we’ve got to get into elementary schools. Because there is a difference between prevention, intervention, enforcement. A lot of the things we are doing up until now … that’s all high schools. We’ve got to be in the elementary schools. That’s where I hope to get us someday … Just getting to know them, knowing that it’s OK to talk to the police, that it’s OK to look up to them and know them by name.

Q: The department over the past year has really fought with the city over how Public Records Act requests are handled. What’s going on, and what do you think of it?

A: I’ve had two meetings with … our city clerk … on how we can get on board and be consistent with the city. So it’s a work in progress, and I think we’re on our way.

Q: What does that mean?

A: All the other city departments run everything through the city clerk’s office … and it’s apparently been unique that we handle most of this stuff ourselves. So my thinking is we need to be in line with the city and follow that process.

Q: You just released the (Dazion Flenaugh) video. That was a decision from the city and the department to go with the spirit of a law that you did not have to do. But then it created some controversy because it ended up being a curation of video (edited collection of video). What’s your take on that situation?

A: The language of the council resolution isn’t very specific. It just says release of video within 30 days.

Q: But the language of our Public Records Act request was extremely specific.

A: I didn’t see your PRA. So what we did was we talked about, you know, reasonable interpretation of it applicable to the event itself. So that’s what was released. And, obviously, yes there is other video that’s out there of units responding to the scene, but they had no involvement in the actual incident itself.

Q: Do you see the other side of that, how even though it’s not related not releasing that undermines trust?

A: Yes, it does, yeah. But you have to be reasonable, too. … Because there is a tremendous amount of video, and then what we found is just with the video that we determined to be appropriate based on the incident itself; you know, we’re not there yet with technology in terms of privatizing it and all that. It was a huge task for us to get it so that it was releasable … We need to get the technology in place. We kind of have set the standard, this is what we’re going to do in the future, so we need to get that stuff on board.

Q: Do you plan on curating (video) in the future?

A: Yes. … It’s based on our interpretation, advice from the city attorney that what we did was appropriate because it was appropriate for that incident itself, pertinent to that incident itself.

Q: You said during Thursday night’s City Council meeting that you finished the pilot program on body cameras. What did you learn?

A: A lot because one, technology changes overnight. When we started this project, we wanted to make sure we were looking at what we thought at the time were the best products. But the one (piece of) advice learned from other agencies that kind of rushed into it is (to not) rush into it. Make sure it meets your needs and has the capacity of what you’re looking for because once you make that investment, it’s kind of there and it’s very expensive to switch.

Q: What’s your philosophy on the technology? What did you learn about what it means for an officer to wear body cameras?

A: I love it, and I think the officers will love it and are looking forward to it because, as I said, there’s some mistrust out there. The cameras, although it shows one perspective, it is what it is. And I know from my time in internal affairs over the years that people will come in and they may have a legitimate complaint or concern or they just make something up. And the camera captures it.

Q: We’re in this period where the Police Department has had these two shootings that are very high profile. What do you tell your officers when you have low morale and a department that’s really struggling with feeling attacked?

A: One, that there is a segment of our community that does not trust us, but I think that it pales in comparison in the number of people that do trust us and support us. I tell them that first. The other thing is our priority is for them to be safe. Whether it’s making sure that they have the best training, the best tools, the organization supports them. We expect them to the right thing but that we support them, and that the community does support them.

Q: What do you need from the city right now; what are your priorities?

A: We need the retention issue to be fixed, first and foremost … I’ve said I’m not asking for additional bodies right now because we need to stop people from leaving the organization first. We need to be competitive with our neighboring cities that people are going to. Internally, I can do everything I can to support the organization, the morale, the feeling that they feel valued and appreciated and that I support them. And externally, I need to make sure that the decision makers, our political body, our city manager, understand what’s going on within our organization, the challenges they’re facing, the feelings that they are facing. I hope to provide them the information that they need to make the right decisions.

Q: Are there things other than salary that (the city) can offer?

A: I’ve made a suggestion, if you live in the city you get free utilities or reduced home interest loans, something like that … You know, I live in the city. I would hope not only my strong work ethic and my dedication and experience got me this interim position, but also the fact that I’m a city resident … I think it’s my responsibility as the leader of this organization to live in this city. My mindset is, I’m thinking of the city 24/7 because I do my grocery shopping in the city, I do my shopping in the city, you know, and I don’t want anything to happen to me, but I (also) don’t want anything to happen to my family as they’re doing their thing. So I think about it differently. … I think it adds a certain level of credibility.

Q: What are you doing to keep diverse candidates at the Sacramento Police Department instead of departments that offer better pay?

A: If we had competitive salaries, obviously, and if they feel valued. That’s huge. Sometimes it’s not just about the money; sometimes it’s like, “I just want to feel appreciated.” I don’t want everybody to think it’s only about the money because that isn’t it; it’s a combination of all of that.

Q: At City Council on Thursday, you said this job was fun. What’s fun about being the chief?

A: This job is fun. People are saying (to me) “You just got a new bounce in your step.” I do … I just have a passion for it.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa