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Captain to Take Post : Santa Ana Chief of Police for 1 Year Quits Suddenly

Times Staff Writer

Clyde L. Cronkhite resigned suddenly and unexpectedly from his job as Santa Ana police chief Monday, little more than a year after he won the position following a monthslong, nationwide search for a new chief.

Paul M. Walters, a captain and 17-year veteran of the department, was immediately named as Cronkhite’s replacement by City Manager David N. Ream. Walters was second on Ream’s list of three final candidates when Cronkhite was chosen in October, 1987, Ream said.

“He is more than qualified to be chief,” Ream said. “I’ve known him for 11 years. It was an easy decision.”

Cronkhite’s short tenure has been marked by acrimonious relations with the city’s police officers union, whose members have been fighting the City Council and Ream for higher wages and more manpower for nearly 2 years.

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Cronkhite was unavailable to explain the reasons for his resignation, and Ream would not comment on whether morale and other departmental problems contributed to his decision. A statement issued by Ream’s office said only that Cronkhite resigned “to return to college to complete his doctoral degree and pursue an academic career.”

The resignation came while all six City Council members were in Boston attending a National League of Cities conference. Ream notified them of the change by telephone Sunday night.

‘Yeah, I’m Surprised’

“I don’t know exactly what is going on,” said Councilman Dan Griset. “Yeah, I’m surprised. I didn’t expect to get a message like that.”

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Ream conceded that a weekend resignation with no period of notice is “unusual” but said that neither he nor the City Council pressured Cronkhite to leave. “It’s something we’ve been discussing for some time,” Ream said. “Clyde decided he didn’t want to continue as chief of police anymore. . . . He left of his own volition. . . . I think Clyde came to the city at a very difficult time, but he provided excellent service to this community.”

Sgt. Donald Blankenship, president of the Police Benevolent Assn., which represents the department’s officers through the rank of sergeant, said Cronkhite is “merely Ream’s scapegoat for the disorganization and inefficiency” of the department.

For the past several months, the association’s newspaper, Reliable Source, has criticized Cronkhite and deplored what it saw as rapidly sinking morale. On Monday, Blankenship accused Cronkhite of letting himself become a stooge for Ream instead of fighting harder for more patrol officers. He said Cronkhite had lost all credibility with the rank and file.

Chief Called ‘Puppet’

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“The guy has been a puppet since he’s been here,” Blankenship said. “It’s Dave Ream pulling the strings.”

Ream would not respond to Blankenship’s charges.

Griset, while confirming Ream’s statement that the council had not pressured Cronkhite into resigning, indicated that he, at least, had some concerns about what effect his continued tenure might have on the city.

“I’ve been concerned about the attention given to politics and campaigns” by the police officers, Griset said. “I had not reached any conclusions as to whether the departmental leadership was creating these continuing conditions. My hope is that the new chief will help bring everyone back to the day-to-day job performance that everybody wants. . . . Paul Walters is a known commodity to the department and its people.”

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The council has split often over police issues in the past, but this time its members are at least presenting a united front. Mayor Pro Tem John Acosta, a longtime foe of Griset, agreed that Walters was a good choice. “I’m sad to see Clyde leaving us, but by the same token, he (Ream) made an excellent decision in appointing Walters.”

Cronkhite, 50, is a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who retired in 1986 after 26 years to become vice president for security for an Irvine-based savings and loan.

When he retired from the LAPD, he was head of the department’s central bureau in downtown Los Angeles, supervising 1,700 uniformed and detective personnel serving 800,000 residents.

Walters, 43, lives in Anaheim but made his way up through the ranks in Santa Ana.

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A former Air Force sergeant who served in Vietnam, Walters joined the Santa Ana Police Department in 1971. After 4 years on patrol, he was promoted to sergeant, and in 1979 he made lieutenant. He has been a captain since 1982 and has commanded both the department’s administration and field operations divisions.

He received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Cal State Fullerton and a law degree from the American College of Law in Anaheim. Walters has served continuously with the Santa Ana department, although he has applied to be chief in other cities.

Walters said he has no immediate plans to dismantle any of Cronkhite’s programs. Those include a series of “attack teams” to combat problems about which residents were particularly concerned: drugs, gangs, prostitution, traffic accidents and vagrancy. They also include a number of new assignments for officers, sergeants and lieutenants, some of whom were not at all happy with the changes.

9 Sergeants Reassigned

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Last week, Cronkhite reassigned nine sergeants, three of whom were on the police association’s wage negotiating team. One of them, Sgt. John McClain, had been a homicide investigator for 22 of his almost 30 years on the force and was just 8 months from retirement when he was reassigned to patrol.

McClain fought the transfer, saying that it was retribution for his union activities, and Friday he won a temporary restraining order in Orange County Superior Court. Another wage team member, Sgt. Gary Sawyer, was transferred from the burglary investigation division to patrol, while a third, Sgt. Erik Vedborg, went from patrol to communications.

Walters said he had not yet decided whether to reinstate the transferred sergeants in their old jobs. “I’ll talk to the city attorney and address that issue first thing tomorrow,” Walters said. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet.”

The biggest problem facing the department is the absence of a labor contract, Walters said. “That’s our foremost hurdle,” he said. “It’s distracting. I don’t know if I can do anything about it, because I don’t really have a direct role. . . . But I feel like I have a tremendous amount of support--in the community, in the administration and very much so within the ranks. I know what they’re facing, and I always keep in touch.”

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Blankenship described Walters as “a bright guy” with “all the tools to do the job” but wondered whether he could represent the department’s interests when negotiating with Ream and the City Council for more resources.

“What the cops are looking for right now is someone to take charge and be a leader,” Blankenship said. “If he goes in and tells the truth--that Santa Ana has serious crime problems--he’ll do well. But if he juggles the books and says we have enough people on the streets, if he’s into media hype and flash and dash, then it won’t work.”

Times staff writers Steven R. Churm and Andrea Ford contributed to this story.


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