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Santa Clara’s Elected Police Chief System Fails to Make the Grade

The Santa Clara City Council will be considering whether it’s time to change the elected police chief system. A central consideration will be whether the 1952 system has given Santa Clara a well-qualified police chief in 2022.

A survey of 30 representative California cities shows that Santa Clara has one of the least qualified and highest paid police chiefs in California. Whether it’s education, professional certification or public safety management experience, elected Police Chief Patrick Nikolai ranks far from the top.

At the same time, Santa Clara is in California’s top 10 (of all cities) for police chief salary. And it appears to be one of few cities — perhaps the only one — whose police chief was the long-time president of the police union.

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Santa Clara’s Elected Police Chief by the Numbers

To see how Santa Clara’s elected police chief system measures up, we looked at the qualifications of police chiefs in 29 California cities of similar size, located in the Bay Area, or with assets like convention centers and sports and entertainment venues.

In addition to being the only city with an elected police chief, Santa Clara is the only city with a police chief who never worked in law enforcement management prior to becoming chief. Santa Clara’s chief is one of only eight who never served as a deputy, assistant or interim chief or as a chief in another city or law enforcement agency.

Santa Clara’s chief is one of only six chiefs in this group that doesn’t have an advanced degree. He’s only one of five that doesn’t show continuing education certifications such as Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), FBI National Academy — attendees must be nominated based on leadership skills or the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute.

Many of the chiefs on this list have superlative qualifications.

Mountain View’s police chief served on the FBI Hi-Tech crimes task force. Santa Barbara’s interim police chief has a Ph. D. in Public Administration and Planning and is a former director of the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Alameda’s police chief is an adjunct faculty member at Merritt College.

Fairfield’s police chief was congressional district woman of the year and is adjunct faculty at Northwestern University. Campbell’s police chief invented a device to reduce the incidences of high-speed police chases.

In only one category does Santa Clara score high: salary.

While Santa Clara is 18th in population size for this list, the city’s police chief salary is among the top 10; behind Los Angeles, Riverside, San Francisco, Mountain View and Sunnyvale (Director of Public Safety, Police and Fire).

Santa Clara pays its chief more than Inglewood, Pasadena, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego — all cities with major league sports stadiums. Not only was Santa Clara’s chief in the top 10 salaries for these 30 cities in 2020, the City also pays one of the top 10 police chief salaries in all of California.

For the details on the results of our research, see police chief qualification 30 cities.

Elected Police Chief: A Perennial Discussion

Since enacting its 1952 charter, Santa Clara has had periodic discussions about whether the elected police chief system was out-of-date, most recently in 2016. Santa Clara is the only California city with an elected chief and one of a small number nationwide.

Now it’s come under the microscope again, this time by the city council.

The argument that’s made for an elected police chief is that it gives residents a direct voice in selecting a police chief.

However, rarely have incumbents faced an opponent, and when they have, they’ve always won re-election — even in the poisonous 2016 campaign where Mayor Lisa Gillmor, developers and the police union PAC threw the whole weight of their vitriolic “filth and stink” campaign against Mike Sellers.

In Louisiana, where elected police chiefs are more common, the Baton Rouge Advocate found that half of the state’s elected police chiefs ran unopposed.

Proponents for change say that the job of police chief is like any other executive municipal job. It requires a high level of education, specialized training, and proven management experience — qualifications that are even more essential now that police use-of-force has come under scrutiny as never before.

Yet, it’s the only Santa Clara executive job that’s filled by an election in which the only qualification for running is 30 days of residence in the City.

Cities with appointed police chiefs can look all over the U.S. for candidates with the best qualifications. Santa Clara, however, has a pool of 11 officers who live in the City, and who, therefore, can run for police chief. Of those that live in the City, only one, the current police chief, is in a management position and only because he was elected into that position in 2020.

In 1993, when the Council considered changing the system, retired Police Chief Manny Ferguson spoke favoring the change, while then-Council Member Lisa Gillmor opposed it.

“Number one, it’s extremely divisive in the department to have members running for chief,” Ferguson said. “It tears the department apart and has everyone picking sides. Number two, there is no guarantee that anyone who wants it is qualified.”

Everything Ferguson warned against 30 years ago came true in 2020 when Santa Clara’s former Assistant Police Chief, Dan Winter, dropped out of the 2020 police chief election in the face of a campaign that promised to be a re-run of Nikolai’s 2016 losing campaign against retired Chief Mike Sellers — a libelous and vicious campaign run by Mayor Gillmor.

Winter has a B.A. in Management, a J.D. from Santa Clara University and is a member of the California Bar. He’s a graduate of the FBI National Academy and POST, a longtime Board Member of Special Olympics Northern California, and now Intel’s Director of Security Operations. Winter’s appointment would have given Santa Clara a police chief at the top of the qualifications list.

And the Santa Clara Police Department doesn’t lack for well-qualified police chief candidates today. Its two assistant chiefs, Wahid Kazem and Derek Rush, are well qualified to take on the top role. Both have advanced law enforcement certifications including graduation from the FBI Academy, and Kazem has a master’s in Criminal Justice Administration.

Kazem cracked the Mary Quigley murder cold case — earning a Crime Stoppers award —and won a federal grant to create one of the first DNA investigation teams. Rush invented several firearms safety devices and was County Sheriff’s Top Cop in 1997.

But despite their years of service to Santa Clara, neither of them can run for police chief because they don’t live in the City.

Sources: Police department websites, press releases, personal LinkedIn pages, news reports, and Transparent California (2020 salaries). We acknowledge that we may not have identified all the specialized training, honors and community and educational involvement for all chiefs.

For more on the impact of Santa Clara’s police union PAC on the City’s politics:
Developer Pumps More Money into Police Gray Money PAC
Police Unions Spend Big for Political Influence and Santa Clara is no Slacker

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5 Comments
  1. ThatGuy 6 months ago
    Reply

    Ahhh…. Pushing the narrative so the council can appoint a Police Chief like the City
    Manager or City Attorney. They want another lap dog to do their bidding.

    • NotThatGuy 6 months ago
      Reply

      Nikolai was essentially appointed anyways as the mayors lapdog, just using the election to avoid having someone qualified enough to challenge the council on anything.

  2. CSC 6 months ago
    Reply

    “But despite their years of service to Santa Clara, neither of them (Wahid/Rush) can run for police chief because they don’t live in the City.”
    .
    Not so fast with the “Kazem and Rush, are well qualified” bit as either would only have to rent a room for 31 days to get on the ballot. Both participated in intentionally destroying a Use of Force report and having officers collude police reports to cover up discrepancies. Despite overwhelming evidence, they were never investigated for it. And they both carry the stench of bad principles and practices that has corrupted the Santa Clara Police Department for decades.
    .
    There is no other private company in the City of Santa Clara that settles for “the only guy available” to lead 100+ people in a department/company. Just like residents in Campbell, Gilroy, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Jose, and Sunnyvale … Santa Clarans and people visiting/working in Santa Clara deserve to have a robust and selective search conducted for a highly qualified chief of police.
    .
    While the City Council is considering putting an amendment to the police chief charter on June’s ballot, they should make a quick inquiry of Nikolai, Kazem, and Rush as to how the independent, external, investigation of Philip Cooke’s and Brian Gilbert’s tenure at SCPD is coming along.

  3. WWT 6 months ago
    Reply

    I would agree that the current system is not working. Being able to win an election is not a proper measurement of the individuals ability to run a department that is responsible for the safety of our city’s people and their possessions. It would be great if they would enact a system that would provide transparency and include people in the selection process who understand the roles and responsibilities of the chief.

  4. Resident 3 weeks ago
    Reply

    They should get rid of the mayor and watanabe too. Both useless and corrupted

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