10:51 PM PST on Friday, February 12, 2010

By ALICIA ROBINSON and PAUL LAROCCO
The Press-Enterprise

City officials say they expect the search for a new Riverside police chief to include candidates inside and out of the department, and one hoped the hunt would commence within a month.

Chief Russ Leach, 61, announced Thursday that he was immediately stepping down to take a medical retirement.

The move came after Leach crashed his city car early Monday and was stopped by his own officers. He later said he was impaired by prescription drugs at the time and had little memory of the accident.

Questions about how the department handled the crash led the city to turn the investigation over to the California Highway Patrol and launch an internal affairs probe led by outside legal counsel.

Assistant Chief John De La Rosa has been named acting chief.

City Manager Brad Hudson issued a statement late Thursday saying that the city “is embarking upon an aggressive recruitment” for a new chief. He did not return several calls Friday.

Council members largely declined to comment on how the search for a police chief will be conducted, noting that Riverside’s charter gives the city manager control over the chief’s recruitment and employment.

However, Councilman Andy Melendrez said a search should begin within the next 30 days and include candidates both within and outside the department.

Riverside Police Officers Association President Cliff Mason said members are open to supporting the best candidate, whoever it is.

“It’s a delicate time for our agency and we need the best person to shepherd us through this,” Mason said.

City officials and residents said the new leader should continue Leach’s community policing initiative and understand Riverside’s diversity as an urban city with many distinct neighborhoods.

“I think I’m looking for a chief that has the special talent of being able to relate to the community but at the same time being able to relate to the officers,” Melendrez said.

The new chief will need to be creative within a tight budget and should try to improve some areas of recruitment, said Jennifer Vaughn-Blakely, chairwoman of The Group, which focuses mainly on issues in the city’s black community.

“I think we need to do a better job of recruiting women, especially African-American women,” she said.

Gilberto Esquivel, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission who is active in the Latino community, said he hopes Riverside will take a cue from other cities in the region that have formed citizens’ panels to interview police chief finalists and make recommendations.

“I hope they really take a close look at the person, and in some way, have the community involved,” he said.

Traffic Stop Probed

As Leach departs, questions about the handling of his traffic stop could cast a lasting shadow over the department.

Mason, the association president, said that without knowing the findings of both the CHP’s criminal probe of Leach’s crash and the city’s internal investigation, it was unfair for anyone to judge whether police leadership is tainted.

He said De La Rosa has the officers’ “unwavering support.”

“I have confidence in the folks running the agency,” he said.

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