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H.B. police chief says he’s working to reunify his fractured force after no-confidence vote in 2017

H.B. police chief says he’s working to reunify his fractured force after no-confidence vote in 2017
Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy shared with the City Council this week how he has worked toward resolving departmental problems based on recommendations from an independent consulting firm. (File Photo)

Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy shared with the City Council this week how he has worked toward reunifying his fractured force based on recommendations from an independent consulting firm following a no-confidence vote from officers in 2017.

Team-building workshops among police staff members, a new mentor program, monthly communication meetings, a new department-wide mobile app and establishing a department vision and mission statement were among the items he discussed.

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Progress also is being made to modernize the Police Department’s deteriorating headquarters, according to Kelly Rodriguez, the department’s first assistant chief, who assisted Handy during Monday’s study session.

“It’s really turned out to be a positive thing,” Handy told the council. “We’ve seen the organization pivot around some of the recommendations, especially in team building.”

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The Police Department went through a rocky period in 2017.

Violent crimes in the city rose 28% that year compared with 2016, and there were seven officer-involved shootings, including two in which a suspect was killed. The total exceeded any other year this decade, according to department archives.

Mounting tensions between Handy and the city’s police unions prompted city officials at the end of 2017 to hire Costa Mesa-based Management Partners to gather employee perspectives on the department’s strengths and limitations. The year included the no-confidence vote by the Huntington Beach Police Officers’ Assn. and a call for a new chief by the Huntington Beach Police Management Assn., which represents the department’s captains and lieutenants.

City officials said it was the first time in recent history that the city commissioned a review of the Police Department.

The consulting firm found “deep divisions” in the department and presented 16 recommendations, including team building, leadership development and infrastructure improvements.

Handy thanked the council Monday for enlisting professional help and said the process is helping the department “come together.”

The department also created a five-year plan with guidance from Pete Dunbar, an expert in strategic planning for police departments, Handy said. Goals include crime reduction, community partnership, improving workplace practices and creating a succession plan for employees.

Eighty-five employees joined the department in the past five years, and a majority of the leadership is in junior-level positions, according to Handy.

The efforts appear to have alleviated some strain between Handy and the police unions.

Yasha Nikitin, president of the Police Officers’ Assn., said in an email Thursday that the union is encouraged by what he called a new era of city leadership focused on teamwork instead of “hyper-partisan soundbites and dysfunction.”

But he said more progress is needed.

“We need to make a serious effort to tackle the rise in violent crime, stagnant police staffing — which is still below pre-recession levels — the recent reduction of patrol supervision on the street by 50%, recruitment and retention of the highest-quality people and so much more,” Nikitin said.

Handy said in an interview Friday that there is no question the department could use more police officers to provide a higher level of service, but he also noted financial strains the city is facing with increasing pension liabilities. He said other city departments are in similar situations but that “we have to do the best we can with what we have.”

He countered Nikitin’s criticism about recruitment, saying the Police Department attracts quality candidates, with more applicants “in the pipeline than jobs available.” Four officers recently joined the department, Handy added.

The reduction in patrol officers, Handy said, is because officers are out with injuries and the department replaces them with others on overtime only when necessary. He declined to be specific about the injuries but said there hasn’t been a drop in service because of them.

“We’ve made good strides and positive progress, and I’m very appreciative of support from the community and council,” he said.

Last year was a year of transition for the department.

The City Council gave the green light to create the assistant police chief position and begin a yearlong pilot program to study how a drone could be used for public safety.

The number of local officer-involved shootings dropped to one, and violent crime declined 6.9% from 2017, according to department data.

Figures also showed that reports of rapes and robberies both increased more than 10%.

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