Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama on misconceptions about cops, criticism over anti-mask protester
On April 19, 1995, a teen in Oklahoma City was sitting in history class when he heard a rumble outside the window.
“I remember looking outside my classroom—it was actually facing to the south, which was away from downtown—and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s a perfectly clear day. Where’s thunder coming from?’” Paco Balderrama recalls.
What he actually heard was the ripple effects of a powerful bomb that went off at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The explosion reduced the structure and the surrounding area to rubble. The Oklahoma City bombing by ex-Army soldier and white nationalist Timothy McVeigh claimed the lives of 168 people, including 19 children.
In an odd occurrence of the butterfly effect, the bombing is the entire reason Balderrama pursued a career in law enforcement. In January 2021 he began his tenure as the first Latino police chief of Fresno, California’s fifth-largest city.
“That type of senseless act of violence just changes your perspective,” Balderrama says. “At the time, I’m a high school senior and I’m a football player. I’m getting pretty good grades and I go to church. I’m kind of your model student and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What can I do in my career, in my life to make this community better, to protect those that can’t protect themselves and to bring justice to those who have suffered injustice?’”
He was born in El Paso, Texas, but spent his early years living with his grandmother in Chihuahua, Mexico, according to The Fresno Bee. He and his family moved to Oklahoma City in 1993. He worked at the police department there for 22 years. He was best known for his work in media relations.
Although he has served only a year so far, he has had to face challenges that predated him, like violent crime and gangs. But he’s also had to deal with new issues posed by the pandemic, such as disruptive anti-maskers (more on that below).
Late last year, I spoke with Balderrama about misconceptions about policing, how being a person of color does (and doesn’t) impact the way he does his job, and a controversial moment in his tenure involving a protestor. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Was there anything different about the role than what you initially expected?
So before I came to Fresno, I was the deputy chief in Oklahoma City, which is actually a larger city than Fresno; it’s about 650,000 , give or take. Fresno’s latest census, I think we’re looking at about 550,000. So my role there was different for many reasons. Number one, I was a deputy chief for almost two years. And the Midwest is a lot different than in California. I have been pleasantly surprised in many areas. I have found that there’s a lot of support for law enforcement in the Central Valley. So Fresno is actually a very good place to be a police chief when you consider how much people appreciate law enforcement and first responders. And I think part of the reason is because we’ve seen an increase in violent crime here in California and nationwide in the last couple of years.
Another one of the surprises is how difficult it is to police in California because of our weakened criminal justice system. There’s been a lot of well-intended bills passed in the last few years that have been passed through the guise of police reform and equality and things like that. But in reality, they’ve turned out to hurt our community and a zero dollar bail is one of them.
The fact of the matter is, that type of legislation actually helped release a lot of violent criminals to re-offend and make it very difficult for police officers to do their jobs. Well, the system is letting them out, sometimes within hours. So it’s been very frustrating for the victims and for police to see this.
How does your race impact your style of policing and how is it different from that of your white predecessors or colleagues?
Leadership is leadership, and I can tell you that to be a good leader, you just have to be very focused on the mission. You have to be attentive of your people’s needs. You have to know that everyone in the organization is important to the ultimate mission of making this community safe. So I often tell the people that work for me that everybody has a job here: the cleaning lady all the way up to the chief of police. And there’s no one person that’s more important than the other. We all have to do our part in order to get the job done. But, you know, it’s really hard to say how I’m different from my predecessor or from other chiefs. I have my own style. I think myself and Mayor Jerry Dyer, who was police chief here for almost 19 years, I think we have the same philosophy on policing. But he and I are different individuals, so we have a different leadership style.
It sounds as if you’re saying it really doesn’t have a gigantic impact.
No, it really doesn’t. I think your culture and your upbringing have a lot more to do with how you lead than being Hispanic or African-American or white. It’s really about your upbringing more than it is about what your race is.
What do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to policing?
I think the advent of social media and just the internet in general have made of these things have made the world so much smaller. And perception is reality. Policing today is about accountability. It’s about fairness. I think sometimes you see a video like what occurred in Minneapolis with George Floyd and it’s played over and over and over and is viewed literally millions of times. So it gives people the impression that that type of behavior occurs a hundred times a day, every day. And in reality, those things don’t happen every day. You know, those things are actually pretty rare, especially in 2021, when there’s so much more and better accountability in law enforcement.
When something does happen or when there are allegations, most police departments are going to act quickly to investigate and find out. And now with body worn cameras, which I’m a huge proponent of, we can quickly figure out whether something happened or didn’t and body worn camera cameras that the police officers are carrying actually protect police officers just as much as they do the public. So just the fact that use of force is extremely rare should let you know that, you know, for the most part, police police engagement with the public is positive, professional and it’s just us doing our jobs.
You said the video of George Floyd gives people the impression that that behavior occurred often, even though those instances are pretty rare. If you consider this to be a misconception, what actions do you think you can take to address that misconception?
The actions that we can take is, number one, to acknowledge the incident to begin with. I haven’t met a single police chief around this country that has justified those actions. They were criminal and evil in nature, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I think it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that police officers are human beings and there is a history of injustice, especially when you go back to the ‘60s and the ‘70s. But it’s also important to acknowledge just how far we’ve progressed as a career path. Modern policing is so much better than it used to be. There’s more accountability, there is more transparency, there’s more truth than there ever has been. When you look at the Fresno Police Department in particular, we’re one of the most diverse agencies in the country. More than half of our agency is minorities, and we serve a very diverse community. Now we haven’t reached the pinnacle of being the most diverse agency in the country yet because we still have some room to grow: we need to hire more females in particular, we’d like to see more Asian and Pacific Islander police officers. But we’re certainly focused on achieving those goals as well.
You said that police cameras protect the police. Could you elaborate on that?
Eighty percent of the complaints that I ever fielded about there were simply misunderstandings. It was the fact that they did not understand why the officer did what they did. And if we would have taken the time to explain it, we wouldn’t have had an issue. On the same note, we’ve had a lot of situations where allegations were made. There were false allegations and especially when body worn cameras were brand new, we would get calls and we would get very outlandish accusations and we would go back and we would review the video and we would either disprove it or just figure out that it completely didn’t happen. It was a lot of calls, and then when we would call the person back and say, Hey, we actually reviewed the video. Did you know there was body-worn camera of the incident? No, they didn’t. And we actually reviewed the video and what you said occurred, didn’t occur, and usually the phone would hang up quickly. And so I found that a lot of times those body worn cameras actually protect police officers as individuals, and in some cases we have started investigations because of things that we see on body worn cameras: either use of force incidents or or inappropriate language or something else that we saw in the video that we could go back and investigate. So they are a great tool for accountability, and I’m glad that we have them.
You were talking about how different videos that are seen millions of times on social media aren’t necessarily a representation of what you all see in the streets. I understand that point. I do think that if you are a person of color in the United States, you might think the police have bias just because of statistics in policing. I mean, the reason why we talked the first time was about how students of color were disproportionately being disciplined in schools. And you are also a person of color. I guess I’m just wondering if you at some level empathize with people of color who might have some reservations about the police?
I completely empathize with it, because I’ve been in law enforcement for so long, seeing how things have changed for the better. I was born in the ‘70s, didn’t live through the ‘60s, obviously. But I promise you that policing has improved so much, especially in those areas of use of force and of equality. And are there officers out there that have focused enforcement actions based on race? Yeah, no doubt that’s happened. No doubt that happens today. What I’m saying is that there are so many more measures of accountability where police, supervisors and executives are able to identify those instances and those individuals and weed them out and you’ll get them out of law enforcement and retrain them or whatever else.
You were criticized for your soft handling of Benjamin Martin. The anti-mask protester had been disrupting businesses enforcing a mask mandate. Rather than arresting him, you decided to meet with Martin and encourage him to stop harming businesses. What do you make of that whole situation in hindsight?
Yeah, that is definitely kind of an odd side topic when you consider our current interview. When I got to this community, Martin was part of a big following that was going around our town and was basically shutting down businesses because they had a mask policy, and he would walk in and they would refuse to take their masks off. So that would intimidate a lot of business owners to the point where they would just shut them down. They would just close the store instead of deal with the legal complexities of keeping people out of stores for masks. So, initially, I did have a meeting with him. We had a kind of a heart-to-heart conversation, and I basically told him, ‘Look, you stop doing this because you claim to be pro-police, but yet you’re causing us to focus all our resources on you and we need to be focused on violent crime.’ I basically warned him that if he did that again, he was going to go to jail. And after that, guess what? He stopped. It was not a single other store moving forward that was shut down by him or his group. And that was my goal altogether. So when I met with him, I was criticized. There was a story in the paper criticizing me just for sitting down and dealing with this person. But, you know, hindsight being 20-20, I accomplished what I wanted: to keep this person from shutting down stores costing money to these business owner owners and causing the police department to focus their resources on dealing with him. And that did stop. Now it turns out that he was recently indicted for his actions on January....
The protests at the Capitol.
Right, right. But that’s the federal case that we had really nothing to do with. So that’s kind of a side story altogether. But, as far as being a police chief, that can engage with people to get them to stop committing crimes, it’s something that’s part of my job.
If people treat people like Ben Martin in any way that could be construed as lenient or indulgent, could it raise questions about whether the police are revealing a partisan political bias?
My job is to keep the peace in this community, and I met with Ben Martin because I wanted him to stop creating chaos in our community. I think keep given people fair warning is the fair thing to do. And it’s interesting to notice that after I had this meeting with him, there were no more stores shut down. And, you know, as far as biases, it’s important for police chiefs to remain neutral politically. I’ve done that. I’m not I’m a centrist just by nature, and I don’t believe in any extreme ideologies. I think the minute that you do that, you you ostracize half the community. So police chiefs are not elected officials and we should remain neutral in all of these political races.
The last question I want to ask is that when you first started your tenure, you told The Fresno Bee that you wanted to be there for 10 years. Is that still the case?
Yeah, that’s still the case. I don’t have plans on going anywhere else. I’ve grown to love the people who work for me, the members of this police department. But frankly, I’ve made a commitment to our mayor, this community and most importantly, to the members of this police department that I’m going to stay here long-term. And realistically, in order for me to make all the changes and improvements and enhancements that I want to make to the Fresno Police Department, that’s about how long it’s going to take. Change doesn’t happen overnight and especially to change of culture. It’s going to take some time. I don’t plan on going anywhere until I finish the job.
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