When East Palo Alto's new police Chief Albert Pardini took over in November, he inherited a department that was struggling with low morale and a lack of direction. Former Chief Ronald Davis had dramatically reduced the homicide rate during his eight-year tenure, but he left huge holes in the department's chain of command, according to staff. A succession of four interim chiefs worked to pull the department together, but the revolving door of leadership was taking its toll.
"My biggest worry was that we would lose quality officers to other departments," said Officer Veronica Barries, who works directly under the chief. "Luckily, we got Chief Pardini. We love him."
Pardini, 52, an affable leader with 32 years in the San Francisco Police Department, is doing something that has stunned the department's weary and overworked officers. He's talking to them, Barries said.
"He is so approachable. You would never know he is the chief. Our officers are so shocked. He has this open-door policy. All of our officers are stunned about that," she said.
Pardini worked in nearly every capacity in the San Francisco department, from beat patrols to heading up homicide and drug investigations.
"He brings a lot of experience with him to his new role, experience that will benefit the residents and public safety of East Palo Alto," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, under whom Pardini worked when Gascon was San Francisco's police chief.
Pardini found his department tested within weeks of his hiring. Early on Jan. 1, officers were fired upon by AK-47-wielding men while investigating one of many incidents of New Year's Eve "celebratory" gunfire.
Fortunately, Pardini already had the department prepared that night. He had doubled staffing on the streets, and officers were able to quickly respond and secured the area, he said.
Police evacuated residents of nearby homes and moved them in a van to a safe location. They obtained a search warrant and stormed the house where officers had seen muzzle fire. Eight people were taken into custody. Investigators are working to determine who shot at the police.
Pardini's office is located in a trailer on Demeter Street. The department's headquarters is a cluster of temporary buildings that face run-down industrial warehouses adjacent to the San Francisco Bay marshlands. At first, the spartan digs took him aback a little, he admitted. But he is at home here, he said.
"I'm loving it. I'm really glad I made the decision. It's been life in the fast lane ever since," he said.
Pardini calls his 36 officers and eight support staff members "a really great group of people."
Those are words East Palo Alto's department hasn't always heard. The department was wracked by scandals in its earlier years, including accusations of deep corruption and incompetence. A San Mateo County grand jury concluded in 1997 that the city should disband its police force and contract with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office for five years.
Then Davis took the helm and dramatically reduced the number of murders. He worked to dismantle the Taliban gang. But tragedies continued to traumatize the community, including the 2011 homicide of a 3-month-old baby boy, Izack Jesus Jimenez Ramirez, whose parents were also shooting victims in a case of mistaken identity.
Morale was low after Davis left in late 2013 to head the U.S. Department of Justice national community policing effort. He had failed to hire four captains or interim captains; officers felt there was no decisive chain of command. Understaffed and reporting to overworked sergeants, some officers worked around the clock. They gave up days off to be on beat, then spent hours testifying in court, then worked another 12-hour shift. Barries said the exhausting schedule took a toll.
Mark Raffaelli, retired South San Francisco chief of police, served as one of East Palo Alto's interim chiefs. Pardini is a good choice for the department, he said.
"He hit the ground running and is asking all the right questions. There are some big challenges because Chief Davis did not leave the department in good shape," in spite of the positive programs launched under Davis' watch, Raffaelli said. (Davis declined to comment for this article.)
In the two months he worked with Pardini, Raffaelli said the new chief has already made strides to overcome the department's problems. Pardini is "gaining the trust of the department, holding the officers more accountable for solving community issues, providing clear expectations, listening to what the members of the department have to say, addressing the needs of the community and getting the community to help get back their community by coming forward to help the department solve crimes, changing the culture of the organization, repair the morale and provide the officers with the proper tools to be effective in the service they provide," he said.
"To be clear, it is not a doom-and-gloom situation. The members of the department are upbeat, hungry for the change. They now have someone who is approachable and has shown he cares. What I have seen is a group of men and women who are dedicated to providing a safe community," he said.
Denise Schmitt, deputy chief of SFPD's Airport Bureau Patrol Division, recalled Pardini's patient approach to problem solving back in 1992 when she was a new officer and he was a sergeant in the Mission district.
"He's a great, calm presence when you've got a whole lot of things going on. The one phrase he would always say is, 'I've peeled the layers here. I'm slowly peeling the layers back.' It made me realize that I don't have to jump in and chop something in half to get it solved," she said.
Choosing Pardini for the East Palo Alto job was a good decision, she added.
"When they announced that he was a candidate, I thought, 'If they have the ability and foresight to get him, you'll be well served,'" she said.
Pardini takes a two-pronged approach to battling crime. Reducing violent crime is his first priority, he said, but he's also going after quality-of-life crimes, such as drug dealing, racing cars and loud music and street parties.
One line of attack: revitalizing research on cold cases that have a potential to be solved. It's an area to which he brings sizable experience. Pardini dramatically improved San Francisco Police Department's murder-investigations division in 2009.
An SF Weekly headline noted the transformation under Pardini: "Once a joke, SFPD is actually solving murders these days."
Six months after Pardini arrived from the city's narcotics squad to head the investigations division, his team was closing out a backlog of unsolved homicides. He added extra staff early in homicide investigations. Two-thirds of the homicides were solved. That was more than double the rate of the previous two years, the SF Weekly noted.
Pardini doubled the investigation teams and added a night-watch team who could immediately respond to nighttime murders; he rearranged desks in an open plan so investigators could easily work together on difficult cases; and he reformed how inspectors were promoted to the homicide division, the SF Weekly reported.
The new chief said he has some similar plans for his East Palo Alto teams. First on his list: interviewing every employee to find out their strengths and concerns.
"I ask stock questions like: What are the three things as a police department that we are doing well? What are the three things we could be doing better? Who do they see as the most effective supervisors, and why?" he said.
Those interviews are a first for the department, said Barries, who worked directly under former chief Davis.
"Chief Davis was extremely busy. He was extremely hard working and invested in the department. I think some officers felt they couldn't come to him. He has this 'command presence' about him. It makes it kind of hard for some officers to approach him, and he didn't have a lot of time. Some officers felt a little neglected," she said.
But Pardini has an open-door policy. If he's in his office, anyone can come in and discuss an issue, idea or concern they have, she said.
"His personality makes you feel like you're talking to a beat officer, not the chief -- and he has a great sense of humor," she said.
Department members feel relief with Pardini's hire, Barries said.
"We were always worried about what kind of chief we were going to get. Will he be a politician and not really take care of the department? Will he really fix the issues?" she said.
At the top of Pardini's list of fixes is revising the department's policies and practices manual, which will more clearly guide officer conduct, Barries said. The new chief is using Lexipol, a Web-based provider of state-specific policies and training systems. He is building on work started by interim chiefs Lee Violett and Raffaelli, Barries said.
Pardini is also planning to restructure the department, an approach he took when improving SFPD's homicide investigations. He said he is reviewing all positions and revising their responsibilities so that the jobs work better together. He's taking one issue at a time, asking, "What's the problem? How can we fix it? And what's the next challenge?" he said.
If relationship building in the department is paramount to Pardini's strategy, so too is strengthening bonds with community members.
"I tell my officers, 'Remember that contact you have with that citizen might be their only contact with police, and you have to make a good impression,'" he said. "If you make a mistake, tell a supervisor right away."
"The way they get themselves in trouble with me is if they do something a 14-year-old Explorer would do or something malicious. Then they're going to be in my office, and they'll be accountable to me," he said.
Pardini meets with his staff every morning to go over assignments and discuss the latest trouble spots. On a recent morning, he took up an issue residents brought to his attention after a City Council meeting. Speeding vehicles were creating a hazard on Addison Avenue, and people were partying in cars on the street.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, Pardini assigned the complaint to a sergeant. Officers will go out and give the area special attention to disband the activities, he said.
"You've got to have a working relationship with the community. Taking care of those issues builds trust and credibility. The community sees that you may not always have the ability to make things perfect, but if you take action to make it better than it was the day before, then I think the community appreciates the effort," he said.
Better communication could also help alleviate perceptions some residents have of racial profiling, he said. A poll last fall by Eastside Preparatory School's newspaper found that 19 percent of Latinos and 35 percent of African Americans surveyed had experienced being stopped by police in Bay Area cities "for no good reason."
"There can be times when officers misread a situation," Pardini told the Weekly. If the officer doesn't explain why he or she stopped someone, that person might think it was because of race, he said.
But explaining that the person was stopped because there was a burglary in the area and the suspect was wearing similar clothing or fit a similar description "can be the difference between a good impression and a bad impression of police," he said.
Trust in law enforcement has often been thin in East Palo Alto. But Pardini hopes to expand on the "community policing" model Davis first introduced.
City Councilman Ruben Abrica said that in the last 10 years, and for the past five in particular, the city has developed a certain momentum toward solving crime through community policing.
"My question was, 'What's the next thing? What is the next level?' I'll be very interested in the evolution of that process and how to make it more meaningful. What will it mean to have deeper community policing?" he said.
"More people with more guns are not necessarily going to be all the answers," he said.
So far, he thinks Pardini is on the right track, starting with the pinning ceremony when the chief was sworn in.
"I think I liked what he said, acknowledging participants of the community panel, council and management. He understood how important it is to have community relationships and asking the community to help. This is not a one-person job: 'I'm the chief and I report to the manager and blah, blah, blah.' It's important to build a certain trust, and it helps to be inclusive with the City Council, although we don't supervise him," he said.
Pardini's best weapon may lie with residents such as Millicent Grant and Herminia Castro. When he showed up with a team of officers for the Dec. 18 senior breakfast at the East Palo Alto Senior Center, Pardini made some strong allies.
"The seniors loved him," said Grant, who is president of the senior center. "He established a relationship with the seniors. Starting off with the breakfast program: Serving them food, that meant a lot to them."
East Palo Alto has had a history of new people who come into the city and don't listen to the voices of the residents, she said.
"We know where the problems are. We want our city officials to be people that understand they must listen and to be there for us, not just get busy and you never see them again. You must always be available for the people," Grant said.
Castro said she feels safer with Pardini at the helm, knowing there is a consistent presence. When she went for a walk outside of her apartment recently, a group of teens eyed her, she said.
"I didn't like them, so I crossed the street," the senior recalled.
A large metal shutoff wrench came clanking down at her feet.
"They threw it across the street; they were trying to hit me in the head," she said.
But in her apartment building last Friday, police officers came to share snacks and talk with residents about the problems. And at her local church, officers gathered small groups of teens and gave them bicycles, she said.
Grant nodded approvingly.
"We have a new chief with a new attitude, and he's going to help us. He's come to bring something new to the table, and that makes a big difference."