At its June 27 meeting, the Santa Clara City Council will consider raising the elected police chief’s salary by 10% to $313,692.
The raise is based on a recommendation made by the salary-setting commission at its May 1 meeting. Commissioners are concerned that the assistant chief salaries are close to that of the police chief — salary compaction — and “a chief should get more than a subordinate,” as one commissioner put it.*
“My concern is that we can pay the police chief at the bottom of the assistant chief range,” said another. “Now we’re at a point where, if the assistant chief gets a raise, we’ll always be behind. If we do 10% [raise] this year, we’re still in the game.”
However, the conversation showed that members of the salary-setting commission are unclear about how these models applied to an elected police chief.
“This isn’t like someone who is getting a promotion,” said one commissioner. “It’s someone who goes through another process [to get the job].”
The discussion revealed that the commissioners were surprised that the qualifications for the elected police chief, according to the City Charter, are lower than those required of the assistant police chiefs. To wit: the minimum requirement to run for police chief is a high school diploma, four years of policing experience and living in the City.
The minimum requirement for assistant chief is a bachelor’s degree, at least four years of policing experience — two as a Santa Clara Police Department Lieutenant— and Peace Officers Standards Training (P.O.S.T) or FBI leadership training.
“If you read the job description,” said one commissioner, “the assistant chief has many more basics to get there in terms of experience, the number things they’ve done, the level of education [all] that the chief doesn’t have.”
In considering the chief’s salary, the commission also tried to understand the chain of command in the police department. When a commissioner asked the committee’s HR liaison, Areceli Azevedo, if the assistant chiefs report to the police chief, the answer was, “They report to the City Manager.”
“They report to the City Manager?” another commissioner responded with a laugh. “The city manager doesn’t know anything about policing, That’s ridiculous.”
“I agree partially with that they do report to the city manager,” said Police Chief Patrick Nikolai. “That’s not 100% true. They report to me. They are appointed by the city manager. It’s a dotted line.”
“Both” Run the Police Department
“Who runs the police department?” sounds like a straightforward question. But when The Weekly asked the City, the answer was anything but straightforward.
The City sidesteps the question in the published police department organization chart. As seen in the city budget, the chart shows a matrix of four boxes without any chain of command.
So The Weekly asked City Hall to explain.
“As with all law enforcement agencies, the Santa Clara Police Department is a para-military organization, meaning that we have a rank structure,” City spokesperson Michelle Templeton told The Weekly.
“Line level employees report to first line supervisors (Sergeants, Supervisors, Seniors),” she continued. “First line supervisors report to managers (Lieutenants and civilian managers), managers’ report to Division Commanders (Captains), Division Commanders report to the Assistant Chiefs. Assistant Chiefs work cooperatively with the Elected Chief and report to the City Manager.”
When we asked who was ultimately in charge of the police department, the City’s answer appeared to be “both.”
“The Police Department is under direct supervision of the Chief of Police,” Templeton said. “However, the City Manager is the administrative head of the Police Department. The Chief of Police ‘shall cooperate with all executive policies and procedures established by the City Manager,’ per section 2.15.020 of the City Code.”
Former City Manager’s “Structural Changes” Created Present Confusion
This confusion didn’t seem to exist before 2020. Prior to that, the police chief was shown at the top of the line of command, as is customary in other cities.
The police chief’s compensation, like the city manager’s, was based on the miscellaneous management union contract.
After current Chief Pat Nikolai was elected in 2020, then-city manager Deanna Santana created a second assistant police chief position, with the assistant chiefs reporting directly to the city manager; describing this as “structural changes.”
“This new structure works to stabilize succession planning within the department, which has been a desired focus for quite some time,” Santana wrote in a memo to the City Council.
In addition to “stabilizing succession,” Santana also advised the council that setting the chief’s salary as a regular employee wasn’t strictly legal, and so the council created a salary-setting commission to set the salaries of elected officials. While this committee set the elected clerk’s honorarium at $18,000, it left the chief’s salary at its previous level, with raises commensurate with regular employees.
*The Santa Clara website only publishes an audio recording, and members of the salary-setting commission don’t identify themselves. Further, the recording is almost inaudible in spots and the city website doesn’t have a current list of commissioners. For these reasons, we decided it was better not to use names rather than making guesses.