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Dyer prepares to reshape Fresno P.D. once more with reorganization

GeorgeByline

Jerry Dyer ain’t goin’ nowhere.

I mean to retirement land anytime soon.

That’s my takeaway from recent events involving Fresno City Hall and the Police Department.

Things begin with the assistant chief job, the No. 2 cop behind Chief Dyer. Fresno PD doesn’t have an assistant chief. But that’s about to change.

The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin is using a four-page brochure to announce the newest opening among the ranks of sworn officers.

“The City of Fresno invites your interest for the position of Assistant Police Chief,” says the first page. Nice photos of City Hall and downtown’s Civic Center Square serve as background.

As to the nitty-gritty:

  •  Ten holidays per year plus birthday and one personal day annually.
  • 60 hours of administrative leave per year.
  • $300 per month auto allowance.
  • Defined benefit retirement plan.
  • Annual salary range tops out at $151,452.

There are lots of other enticements in the package, but you get the idea. Being second in command at Fresno PD is a good gig.

Now, near as I can tell Fresno has had only one assistant chief in its 131-year history as an incorporated city. That man was Dyer himself.

Think back to the late 1990s. Chief Ed Winchester and his officers were finally getting a handle on a decade-long crime wave that had made much of the city unlivable. A historic mayoral race was coming in 2000. The chief’s future was sure to be a prime campaign issue.

So, Winchester named Dyer as his assistant chief. There were several deputy chiefs, but only one assistant chief. Of course, the chief doesn’t name his successor. The City Charter gives that responsibility to the city manager who, being hired and fired by the mayor, obeys the lead of his boss.

Still, Winchester’s decision was a very public declaration: Dyer was heir apparent in a department that prefers to hire its chiefs from within.

Sure enough, Winchester announced his retirement soon after then-Mayor Alan Autry took office in 2001. Autry said he’d hire from within the department. Only Dyer applied.

The Dyer era began Aug. 1, 2001.

The new chief wasted no time putting his own stamp on the department. Among other things, a management reorganization was implemented. Hmmm – lots of deputy chiefs, but no assistant chief.

And that’s the way it’s been for nearly 15 years.

But the top of Fresno PD’s organizational chart began to take its lumps about five years ago. There was the lawsuit (hostile work environment) filed in late 2010 against Dyer and the city by Deputy Chiefs Robert Nevarez and Sharon Shaffer. There was Dyer’s “I’m-retiring-opps!-no-I’m-not” episode in 2011. And there was the arrest in March 2015 of Deputy Chief Keith Foster and others on federal drug conspiracy charges. (Foster has pleaded not guilty.)

As 2015 came to an end the Fresno Police Department found itself with just two deputy chiefs – Pat Farmer and the same Robert Nevarez who had sued the chief. (Foster had resigned and Shaffer had retired.)

There was the lingering public dismay that Foster could have worked so many years almost side-by-side with Dyer without the chief learning of Foster’s huge financial problems (those details being ably reported by The Bee’s Pablo Lopez).

There was the very real prospect that a high-profile Foster trial at the Downtown federal courthouse would a brutal months-long examination of PD’s top-level operations.

There was the likelihood that Dyer, due to the nature of his pension package, would have to leave city employment in a few years.

And there was an election looming in 2016 to find a successor to the termed-out Mayor Swearengin.

Oh, one other thing – violent crime was skyrocketing in Fresno at the same time City Hall found it almost impossible to hire new police officers swiftly and in any quantity.

Dyer is, above all, a survivor. He tested the political winds and let it be known that a “reorg” – a reorganization of PD’s management chart – was a top priority. He promised that his successor – should the next chief be an in-house pick – would have plenty of leadership experience.

That’s how the four-page “Assistant Police Chief” brochure came to be born.

I asked the Chief on Monday to chat with me about the assistant chief situation. He declined, saying now isn’t the time. I got the same cold shoulder from City Manager Bruce Rudd.

No surprise there. Dyer’s “reorg” figures to be big news. It’s the perfect topic for a news conference.

But there’s something odd about this situation.

I bumped into Fresno Police Officers Association President Jacky Parks on Monday. We were at a community meeting at Heaton Elementary School hosted by Council Members Esmeralda Soria and Oliver Baines.

Parks knew all about the search for an assistant chief. He said the administration apparently is serious about considering out-of-town candidates or it wouldn’t have made a national pitch. At the same time, he said he’s heard of only one out-of-towner to show serious interest.

Parks said he understands that three people within the department have their eyes on the prize.

Parks gave no names.

I thought: Would Deputy Chief Nevarez, the man who sued the Chief, throw his hat into the ring? If so, would the Chief be content to spend two or three years grooming Nevarez to be Fresno’s next Top Cop?

Nevarez is a fine man and a dedicated cop. Still, not likely.

As to Deputy Chief Farmer – it’s no secret among City Hall insiders that, talented and respected as he is, Farmer’s professional future probably does not include a decade in the pressure-cooker job of Chief. The insiders say that’s Farmer’s intentions, not theirs.

If Nevarez and Farmer are long shots to be assistant chief, and there’s not much outside interest in the job, does that mean the promotion might go to a captain? If so, that’s quite a peace-time bump in rank. Would Nevarez and Farmer stick around when they’re suddenly outranked by someone who used to be on the receiving end of their orders? Would the assistant chief and Dyer want them to stick around?

On top of that, Dyer in his 15 years as chief has fundamentally changed the job. This was evident Monday evening at the Heaton cafeteria. More than 250 Tower District residents filled the room. Tension was in the air. Spikes in neighborhood crime will do that to a people.

Dyer, as he has done countless times over the years, kept a lid on that communal stress. It didn’t hurt that he promised the return of a police substation to The Tower. But it was Dyer’s cheerful but firm demeanor, combined with his incomparable command of local history and lore, that enabled him to control events. It was no accident that he, among all the city officials introduced to the packed house, got the biggest round of applause.

It’s going to take a few years for a new assistant chief to fill those shoes, especially in a city as big and tough as Fresno.

Which brings us full circle to my opening sentence. I don’t think Dyer is a short-timer.

Why is the Swearengin Administration even trying to find a new assistant chief? The way government bureaucracy moves, the application period probably won’t end until the June budget hearings. That’s probably the time Dyer’s “reorg” is finished and publicly announced. Then the candidates will go through a long vetting process. Even if a Fresno cop is selected, that officer probably won’t don the assistant chief’s hat until the fall.

By that time, Fresno will be only a few months from greeting its new mayor. It’s my experience that a Mayor’s most important hire isn’t the city manager. It’s the police chief.

Why not put this assistant chief business on hold until the new mayor is elected and sworn in? After all, hiring an assistant chief is essentially hiring the next Chief. If Swearengin picks the new assistant chief (or approves Rudd’s pick, which is the same thing), and the new mayor doesn’t like that pick, then Fresno’s PD organizational chart reverts right back to the chaos that has plagued the city for several years. Also, why would any serious assistant chief candidate want the job knowing that his job security could plummet once Swearengin leaves the building?

“What’s the rush?” mayoral candidate Doug Vagim told me.

I asked mayoral candidate Henry R. Perea if filling the assistant chief job should await the new mayor. “Yes,” Perea said.

Mayoral candidate Lee Brand at first thought there would be nothing wrong with filling the job immediately. The more he thought about it, the more he saw the wisdom of letting the new mayor make the decision.

Bottom line: The Fresno PD assistant chief job figures to be a hot potato for a year or more. The person who gets the nod has years of on-the-job training to survive. Jerry Dyer turns 57 this year. In contrast, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton turns 69 this year. Dyer’s pension deal means he must leave traditional city employment in 2019. But I’ve heard of no reason why he couldn’t then sign a “temporary” employment contract to stay on the job, much like he did when he “retired” in mid-2011.

Dyer loves his job. Much of Fresno loves him.

Jerry Dyer ain’t goin’ nowhere.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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