Amid years of sinking morale, intradepartment spats and an employee lawsuit that aired much of the police department's dirty laundry, Newport Beach is set to bring on a new chief — its third in three years — on July 3.
Jay R. Johnson, 45, is looking to head a police department far from perfect, but according to officers, one that is on the upswing.
"There was a lack of trust among the line-level troops and management," said Officer Dave Syvock, president of the Newport Beach Police Assn., which represents rank-and-file employees. "That trust deteriorated because of the belief there wasn't a fair practice in promotions and selection for specialty assignments. We're getting to a point where we're starting to build up some of that morale but we still have work to do."
Johnson, a Long Beach police officer of 23 years whose latest assignment was commanding that city's downtown South Division, said he's looking forward to working out issues with police staff.
"I've done just about as much research as I can on the city and the department," he said. "Until you get inside and see how things operate, different personalities, different issues, you can't just define it through research. That's when I'll have a real solid understanding. My style, I'm very much into the team concept. The organization as a team is going to fix problems."
The Newport Beach Police Department has had its share of issues the last few years. In former chief Bob McDonell's last years at the helm, he signed an agreement with then-City Manager Homer Bludau that would bring back retired officers part time, saving the city benefits costs. The agreement, on top of violating a city ordinance because it wasn't approved by the City Council, kept some officers from promotions because the positions remained filled by the retired officers.
When McDonell named John Klein as his replacement in 2007, the city, it was later determined, did not properly recruit for the position.
In early 2009, then-Sgt. Neil Harvey's discrimination lawsuit against the city and department went to trial. He succesfully sued claiming he was passed over for promotions based on false rumors he is gay. He was later promoted to lieutenant and retired in March. Among other revelations, officers testified to a culture of in- and out-crowds among police officers. The trial was soon followed by a city-backed investigation into police department promotions that some officers claimed were biased. Klein was pushed out by the unions last year and interim Chief Robert Luman, who came out of retirement and has been acting chief for the last year.
"Trust is something that can take a lifetime to develop but can be lost overnight," Syvock said. "To rebuild that trust takes time. Over the years that trust has been tested. I think we're at the point where we're rebuilding that trust within the department."
Johnson said he's always wanted to see honesty and integrity in any new chief he's worked under. He hopes to live up to the billing.
"A chief that'll look you straight in the eye and tell you the truth," he said. "If there's an issue, I want to know it. There isn't any secrets. I'd want a guy who is a straight shooter and doesn't put himself on a pedestal, the chief who puts others first."
While Johnson may be younger than some of the men and women he'll be leading, he doesn't expect that to be an issue.
"The best approach for me is to come in with both ears listening," he said. "To hear issues from the top to bottom. Tapping into the people in the department and say, 'OK, what do we need to do? How can we get there?' as far as internal issues."
Though Long Beach may have nearly 500,000 residents compared to Newport's 90,000-plus, Johnson's experience mirrors life in Newport, he said. Commanding the South Division is like being a chief for that area, he said. Downtown Long Beach has many similarities to Newport Beach, including a bustling tourism season, beachfront homes and small businesses.
"I understand that I'm a civil servant … the citizens pay me a nice salary," said Johnson, who's receiving $204,000 annually. "And with that, I want to earn that salary. When (residents) look at that part that goes to pay our salaries, I want the citizens of Newport to feel, 'You know, we're getting our money's worth.'"