City Manager Mike Flad's announcement last week that it was “time for a transition” of leadership at a police department barely emerging from years of unrest, officer-involved lawsuits and numerous outside inquiries into the department left some questioning the move because they felt the interim command staff still had plenty of reforms to carry out.
While Interim Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse is welcome to apply for the permanent job, Flad last week said that “the timing is right, the pieces are in place,” and that it was time for a transition, citing the momentum created by myriad reforms put in place over the past 21/2 years.
LaChasse, who was initially hired on a six-month contract, was praised for assembling the top-level command staff and department's organizational structure and increasing accountability and external oversight, among other achievements.
Police Commissioner Tom Bruehl said he would prefer to continue uninterrupted by a new leader and said commissioners had just begun the process of reviewing how police are implementing and adhering to the goals in its Strategic Plan.
“My personal preference would be to keep the present chief for a while longer, simply because we are in transition on a lot of issues,” Bruehl said. “To keep him longer means making him permanent, and maybe that's the better choice right now.”
LaChasse has not said whether he intends to apply for the permanent position.
Sgt. Robert Quesada, a 30-year veteran and former spokesman for the department who is now in air support, said he was surprised to hear the news.
“We are moving in the right direction when it comes to training and being more open with the public and being more transparent,” Quesada said. “It was kind of surprising that in the middle of what we're doing that they are looking to bring somebody in to replace him.
“We got momentum going, and now all of a sudden we want to bring in a new chief? I was disappointed — I thought they were going to stick with the chief.”
But that sentiment does not appear to be shared by the police union's leadership.
Burbank Police Officers Assn. Vice President Claudio Losacco said the union backed Flad's decision for a transition, citing all of the attention put on administrative and internal changes that has detracted from the department's focus on operations.
“Over the course of the last year or so, we presented Flad and the administration with grievances and that we were looking for a change in direction,” Losacco said. “The focus has been on administrative challenges and has diverted attention from the operational aspect of the organization.”
Losacco said LaChasse and the command staff were brought in on a temporary basis and felt they had achieved the goals they were tasked with, but added that it was time for a permanent chief.
“There have been several positive changes,” Losacco said, “but there are concerns about the level of service provided at the operational level.”
Flad downplayed Losacco's comments and said the union's concerns did not influence his decision.
“They articulated frustrations about some of the changes that the chief was implementing, but nothing that would rise to the level of asking for his removal,” Flad said, adding that they amounted to “typical labor-management disagreements.”
Quesada said there was a “small minority of the Police Department that don't support the chief, and they have the influence,” but said he felt the rank-and-file enjoy working for the current command staff.
He pointed to LaChasse's decision to hire three women, a move that Quesada said “rocked the boat.”
Of the department's 157 sworn officers, just 15 are women — or less than 10% — as of May, according to the Police Department.
“There's a certain segment in our department that they don't want to see change,” Quesada said. “If we are hiring women and if we're behind the times, get with the times,” Quesada said. “Our community is made up of that, and why doesn't the Police Department reflect that?”
There have been other initiatives, including working with service providers to address recurring mental illness and homeless-related issues, launched under LaChasse's stewardship.
Bruehl emphasized that from what he's seen over the last 21/2 years, the command staff has made tremendous changes that are starting to get noticed by other agencies.
“That's the part that I like,” Bruehl said. “I like us to provide the good ideas.”