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Chico ER- Chief Aldridge says Chico is a safe community

Police Chief Billy Aldridge: ‘Chico is a safe community’

Q&A covers department’s challenges, city’s public safety

CHICO — Billy Aldridge has done most every job an officer can do in the Chico Police Department. When he made a lateral transfer from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office in 2005, he started on patrol and moved to street crimes detective. His climb up the ranks included field training officer, crime scene investigator, mobile field force officer, professional standards sergeant, administrative lieutenant, watch commander and operations captain. Occasionally he’d fill in for the chief.

Last fall, when Matt Madden retired, Aldridge became interim police chief — and got the position permanently in December.

“Personally, I wanted to continue to move up,” he said of his time with Chico PD, following four years with the sheriff’s department and seven in the U.S. Air Force. “Professionally, coming from a military background, it’s always, ‘Do what the organization needs of you. Put the organization first.'”

He inherited a department losing officers to early retirement and neighboring communities; its enforcement in homeless encampments strictly defined by the Warren v. Chico settlement; and years of distrust from vocal citizens, stemming from officer-involved shootings and Chico’s participation in a federal program providing military-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The department also is investigating allegations of excessive force by three officers who are subjects of a federal lawsuit.

Aldridge can’t speak to active litigation, as much as he might want to. Otherwise, in an hour-long interview in his office Thursday afternoon, he expanded on a range of topics. His overarching message is the city is safe and will grow safer as he rebuilds the force to staffing levels that allow for more proactive policing.

A: You never know what it’s like until you sit in the chair, truly. As an interim (chief), if something goes wrong, or you start to feel uncomfortable, you can go back down to being captain. So there’s that safety net for you.

And even as an interim, you don’t really get to see the lasting picture of your decision-making. You’re just keeping the ship afloat, keeping it pointed in the right direction, not making any drastic changes in the organization. Fast forward into being the permanent chief, then you can really set your vision — and it’s a collaborative vision, a vision that comes from the city manager, city council, the community.

Having the institutional knowledge of the organization, the overall city of Chico organization, the way our community looks at the police department and the expectations they put forth for us, it made it pretty easy for me to slide into this role and hit the ground running, knowing what the challenges were going to be.

Q: What changes are you making?

A: Pieces along the way. Some policy changes, procedural changes; the way we operate with community involvement. I’ve changed the way the PIO (public information officer) operates within the PD — they’re not just a person who sits back and does feel-good stories all the time.

And then there’s some changes that I’m making to our Police Community Advisory Board. It’s taken me a little longer than I hoped for. We didn’t get the number of applicants that I wanted to see, the depth and breadth of community members who would represent the total diversity of our community, so I extended out the application period to the end of the month.

From there, hopefully we’ll have a pool representing our community well, not just hand-picking people that I like. I want people on there who are going to challenge me and are going to say things that make me think outside of the box — people who aren’t necessarily always supporters of the police department.

Q: Will any of the meetings be public?

A: We’re going to do two town hall meetings a year. Definitely there’s going to be public meetings with our PCAB board, and the PCAB members themselves can hold their own meetings in their own respective areas. So there will be multiple opportunities for the community to get involved in that process and bring forth concerns.

Q: About the only public forum Chico has had on policing was on AB 481, military equipment reporting, which had a limited focus.

A: When we had the public meeting for AB 481, I’ll be honest, we didn’t get the turnout I thought we’d get. (Thirty citizens attended April 27.) I thought we’d get a little larger turnout. It made me think at the time, “Wow, community members want to be involved in dialogue with us and they don’t get an opportunity to do that.” But that wasn’t what led me to design the PCAB the way I want to design it.

Billy Aldridge is sworn in as the new Chief of Police in Chico, California by City Clerk Debbie Presson on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (Jake Hutchison/Enterprise-Record)

Q: How much do the incidents that draw investigations and litigation affect the perception of what goes on day in and day out? Are they a significant enough concern to tip the balance?

A: The old adage that one bad can overshadow 1,000 goods — that’s the way that happens when we have headlines come out that say the police department and officer so-and-so are being sued for whatever. People will look at that and say, “See, I told you they were bad. They’re bad apples.” Or, “I told you they needed more training.” For me, it’s frustrating because you’re only getting one side of it, and now you’re creating a narrative based on one side.

There’s three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. The city has a policy that I can’t comment on litigation, and it’s hard, because I want to say things about these cases that would help inform the community: how things transpired and what led to the moment where the person was arrested or force was used. But I can’t, so my hands are tied.

When these stories happen, they tend to overshadow everything we’ve done up to that point to show the community we’re a professional, well-trained, supportive organization for this community. Officers on scene, we handle close to 50,000 calls a year. It’s not fair to judge us off one incident, and it’s not fair to judge us on one side of one incident. What I hope the community would do is hit pause; once it gets into the court system and it becomes public knowledge, more information will come out.

Q: The department releases a lot of information about police activity, which shows your officers are doing a lot but also could leave the perception that a lot of crime is going on. Is this a safe city, or is this a city where we’re going to have to do things to make it safe?

A: I think we’ve taken steps. Recently we had the contract with the CPOA (Chico Police Officers’ Association) that was really built on recruitment and retention. If I can’t staff the organization, I can’t provide the service to make this community as safe as it could possibly be. As we start building back to the levels we once were, and need to be, that’s where we’ll build out all of our special assignments dealing with issues around our community to create that overall safety.

Are we a safe community? Yeah, I think Chico is a safe community. It has issues in certain areas — and could it be safer? Yes. We’re working toward addressing a lot of those smaller issues that become bigger issues.

Q: Were you surprised by the general lack of reaction to your officers’ pay raise?

A: I think that the community realizes that cops in California are a commodity right now. We’ve had people come into council meetings and say that Chico PD is the top-paid police department in the nation. I don’t know where those numbers came from, because I can tell you that’s absolutely inaccurate. But educated people who do their homework and look at it objectively can say, “I understand why they have to go this route.”

The vast majority of the city of Chico supports this police department. You have what I call the loud minority of people who don’t really support us, don’t really like us, or challenge us. You have the silent majority who truly back us up and want to help us be successful.

Q: Can you already see dividends?

A: Oh yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, before this contract was even signed, one of the laterals who left us came back. Currently we have another lateral who’s in background (checks), we have three others who are in the application process, and I’ve heard we have another who’s applying soon.

Q: What are your priorities?

A: If you don’t staff patrol, you can’t respond to calls. Oftentimes the traffic division is one of the first that gets hit for pulling people out of special assignments. We didn’t necessarily pull anybody out of that special assignment; I lost my traffic officers, which left the traffic sergeant in there alone by himself while he also supervises crossing guards, traffic services, our drone program, our major accidents investigation team — and manages all the hearings for vehicles that are towed and all the parking appeals. So he has a lot of duties that pretty much keep him in the station all day.

Traffic is absolutely one of the units I have to build out. The traffic flow in this city is unsafe; we have accidents all day, every day around this city.

Recently we got the automated license plate reader program kicked off. Since it truly went live right around February, we’ve had 33 million license plates read and in the system — 900 hits for wanted vehicles of some sort — and within the first hour of the first officer being trained on how to use the system, we had an in-custody (suspect) for a stolen vehicle.

Q: City councilors are considering red-light cameras to improve safety on the roads not having traffic enforcement. What’s your feeling about it?

A: August 1, Verra Mobility will Zoom into the council meeting that night for a presentation on their system. I’ve got a captain who’s working with Verra Mobility and Councilmember (Tom) van Overbeek on this. They’re going to give us information on things we had questions about: the cost involved, how many do they think we’ll need, where do they need to be, what are the expectations of the system in regards to reducing accidents and making safer roads.

My thought is that I support any kind of technology that helps create a safer environment for our community where they work, live and recreate. This is just another tool that we’re looking at.

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