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Elected Police Chief: Product of Personal Resentment and Confusing Ballot Wording

“We’ve always done it this way” is the principal argument being offered for retaining Santa Clara’s system of electing police chiefs and requiring no qualifications beyond living in the city, graduating from high school and four years of law enforcement experience.

But we haven’t always done it this way. Further, the way we do it may be more a product of a confusing ballot measure than a considered judgment by Santa Clara residents.

The 1952 Santa Clara charter, which voters approved, called for a city manager-appointed police chief and a city council-appointed city clerk.

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In fact, Santa Clarans voted not once, but twice for change. The first time was the 1950 vote to write a new city charter and establish a governing structure suited for a modern, progressive city. This meant a professional city manager, police chief and city clerk. (It also required all city council meetings to be held in public.)

There were people then complaining that change wasn’t needed. “Chief objections [to the draft charter] came from those who feel that Santa Clara is not large enough to support or require the services of a City Manager,” the Mercury News wrote on Dec. 11, 1950.

The change to an appointed police chief also drew opposition. It came from the elected police chief John J. O’Neill and his friends and supporters. O’Neill lost his job when the 1952 charter was approved. In 1952, O’Neill circulated a petition for the charter change and it went to a vote that year. [1952 mercury elected police chief charter change]

O’Neill’s argument was the same one being heard today: That an appointed police chief and city clerk would deprive voters of a “democratic privilege,” the Mercury News reported on Oct. 31, 1952.

Supporters of the new charter highlighted the corrupting influence of politics on an elected chief. “They argue that a police chief who is dependent upon voters’ whims must necessarily avoid offending any possible supporters — a situation which is likely to result in a do-nothing policy not in the best interest of the community as a whole,” the Mercury reported.

The Mercury continued by quoting Berkeley police chief J.D. Holstrom, also an official in the International Police Chief Association, who pointed out that, “in all of California less than six small cities elect a police chief. He adds: ‘I believe it reasonable to assume that if there was real merit in the method, far more cities would’ve adopted it.”

The Mercury article cited International City Managers Association statistics showing that only 3.6% of cities comparable to Santa Clara in population elected their police chiefs and only 26 elected their city clerks.

Santa Clara city manager John Base asked voters to give the new charter a chance. “I earnestly urge that you defer from making these… drastic changes in your new charter until its shortcomings can be demonstrated under a fair test of actual operation.”

Despite these arguments, voters nonetheless approved restoring these relics from the city’s 1872 charter.  [1952 Mercury new charter appointed police chief]. Following the 1952 change, there were criticisms that voters” were unaware of the significance of the charter amendment adopted by them,” the Mercury News wrote on Jan. 30, 1953. [1953 Mercury editorial elected police chief]

“City Councilman Joseph J. Reibero said afterward he had heard many complaints from citizens that the amendment upon which they voted was worded so ambiguously that they were led to voting the wrong way on it,” the Mercury wrote.

*Special Note: Newspaper clippings came from the San José Library’s 1900-1985 Mercury News archive, made possible by a legacy gift in memory of Susan Renzel Carter. It’s available online with a San José library card.

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4 Comments
  1. CSC 5 months ago
    Reply

    O’Neill was fired in May of 1952 due to what City Manager A.S. Belick stated, “dissension and lack of harmony in the police department, training and discipline are at low ebb, and there is marked laxity in enforcement of the law.” During O’Neill’s time in office, there was also a large scandal when a child went missing and police failed to respond causing residents to band together and look for the child themselves. Belick continued, “O’Neill has lost control of the department and can no longer command the respect and obedience necessary for an efficient and competent police department.” Assistant Chief Earl Perry was named Interim Chief and in February 1953 William Garrity was appointed Santa Clara’s Chief of Police. Garrity came to Santa Clara highly regarded, in addition to 18 years police experience with management experience having served as Santa Barbara’s Police Chief, he also held a teaching certificate from UCLA qualifying him to teach “police work” and was a graduate of the FBI’s training course.
    .
    As stated above, O’Neill’s supporters would create an uproar to reverse the City Charter back to elective including rioting downtown and breaking windows of a grocery store. While reorganizing the office, Chief Garrity discovered 74 warrants that had gone unserved by O’Neill. Being elected, there was no one to supervise O’Neill’s performance on a regular basis. With new public knowledge of the internal findings, support for O’Neill waned and Garrity was elected in April 1953 to continue improving Santa Clara’s Police Department.
    .
    Which brings up the second common argument used by the No on B side: “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
    .
    Data reported from the City of Santa Clara to the California Department of Justice shows 17 Santa Clara Police Officers were accused of crimes between 2016 and 2021. We’re not talking about parking tickets, literally felony crimes like selling confidential police data (Rojas), beating a 21-year-old woman senseless (Burde), auto theft (Green), terrorizing journalists by sending their neighbors porn & pig fetuses (Gilbert, Cooke), indecent exposure in police uniform (Leipelt), etc. Today, Santa Clara police officer Amanda Theodosy-Nash is suspended by the state and could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250k fine. Gilbert, Cooke, and Leipelt were good friends of Pat Nikolai and he hired Nash.
    .
    Santa Clara’s police department is broken, it has the most police officers per capita accused and convicted of crimes in the Bay Area. This is a bad police culture that lacks accountability, and it needs fixing starting at the top.
    .
    Just like O’Neill’s ability to hide a lot of things because he didn’t report to a manager, Nikolai refuses to speak out against documented racism and tries to protect other problematic police officers. Santa Clara has gone unchecked for far too long and now it the time to welcome in better credentialed and more accountable leadership.
    .
    Don’t fall for the fear, uncertainty, and doubt the ‘no side’ keep spewing – they’re trying to scare voters. Simply think about residents in Sunnyvale, Campbell, Mountain View, and other police departments in the county can operate with almost no officers accused of felony crimes. Santa Clara can do it as well but only if we review, interview, and hire a well credentialed Chief of Police. Vote Yes on Measure A, give our city a chance to become one that doesn’t have such a bad performing police department.

    • CSC 5 months ago
      Reply

      Edit last paragraph above: Vote YES on Measure B to amend the City’s Charter and improve requirements for selecting the Chief of Police.
      .
      And also Vote YES on Measure A to appoint the City Clerk.

  2. Walt 5 months ago
    Reply

    Don’t be deceived. The Silicon Valley voice is in the pocket of the 49ers five on the Santa Clara city Council. They are as far from an unbiased source as you can get. They masquerade as unbiased.

  3. Jim 5 months ago
    Reply

    I must thank the Police Offices Association for their door knob hanging flyer. I used it to scrape chicken fat from the base of my indoor grill. I don’t like unions, and that’s what the POA is. It seem that every city in California has an appointed Chief – except Santa Clara. I like accountability, and an elected official is “accountable” – every four years. An appointed chief has “instant” accountability. So, I’ll vote for the council to appoint. If this appointment system don’t work, we can always go back.

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