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Bill Kolender, former chief who championed community policing in San Diego, dies at 80

Bill Kolender, former chief who championed community policing in San Diego, dies at 80
As San Diego police chief, Bill Kolender stressed that officers should work closely with community groups, improve relationships with minorities and low-income neighborhoods, and be restrained in the use of force. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bill Kolender, a champion of community policing who reformed the San Diego Police Department as chief from 1975 to 1988 and later became San Diego County sheriff, died Tuesday after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 80.

His death was confirmed by San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, who called Kolender "a legend in law enforcement."

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Under Kolender, the department moved away from the more physically aggressive type of law enforcement that once seemed to fit a military town like San Diego but was no longer favored by City Hall during the mayoralty of Pete Wilson, a fellow Republican.

Kolender stressed that police officers should work closely with community groups, improve relationships with minorities and low-income neighborhoods, and be restrained in the use of force.

“Community-oriented policing started with Bill and spread. His influence was felt in departments throughout the nation,” said Jerry Sanders, who was San Diego police chief in the 1990s and later was mayor.

The department also hired more women, gays and lesbians and began a civilian review board during Kolender's tenure as chief.

Kolender withstood several controversies as chief, including allegations of traffic ticket fixing and misconduct by some officers.

His department's response to the mass shooting at a McDonald's in San Ysidro in July 1984 also attracted criticism. A gunman killed 21 people and wounded 15 until he was killed by a police sharpshooter.

Some survivors said police had been too slow to react, but Kolender strongly rejected that view. "I think they handled themselves with great courage and great restraint when necessary," he told The Times. The controversy faded away.

After retiring as chief in 1988, Kolender worked for the Copley Press for three years before being named director of the California Youth Authority by then-Gov. Wilson.

In 1994 he defeated an incumbent sheriff, and subsequently was reelected three times. He retired during his fourth term in 2009.

William Barnett Kolender was born May 23, 1935, in Chicago. The family moved to San Diego, where his father ran a jewelry store downtown.

Kolender liked telling jokes, often about his upbringing in an orthodox Jewish family and how his father was disappointed when he left college and joined the San Diego Police Department at age 21.

"My father went ballistic when I joined the cops," Kolender told San Diego Magazine in 2006. "He says, 'Bilvel, it's a gentile's job. Be somebody. I'm embarrassed. I can't go outside.'"

Kolender then added with a laugh, "Then later, of course, the family joke was when I was named chief of police, it was all OK."

Kolender is survived by his wife, Lois, sons Michael and Dennis, daughter Randie Kolender-Hock and stepdaughter Jodi Karas.

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One of the women hired by the Police Department while Kolender was chief was a recent Ohio State graduate named Shelley Zimmerman, who joined the force in 1982. After decades at various assignments and ranks, she was named chief by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

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"His vision of community policing improved the way we police today," Zimmerman said. "I am grateful I had the privilege of working for him."

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