Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz, who took over in July, is getting consistently good reviews from a variety of people.

11:36 PM PST on Saturday, February 26, 2011

By ALICIA ROBINSON
The Press-Enterprise

Conversation with Sergio Diaz, Riverside Chief of Police
Published: 2/26/2011 09:14 PM

The Riverside Police Department has been through its share of turmoil in the past year, from the sudden departure of the chief after a notorious drunken driving stop last February to the November slaying of an officer on duty.

Officers, city officials and residents say the organization has emerged stronger, and they give much of the credit to its new chief, Sergio Diaz.

The chief has punctuated the changes at the department by putting himself out in public. While former Chief Russ Leach was rarely seen in the office or community during his last years on the job, Diaz attends roll calls and civic events.

When the Riverside Unified School District honored some police officers last month, school board member Chuck Beaty recalled, “We look out in the audience and there’s the chief. … He’s out there supporting his officers.”

Since joining the department in July, Diaz also has reinvigorated community policing, tweaked the system for promotion to make it more equitable, and given his officers more deference and more discretion.

In a year, the changes at the Riverside Police Department have moved it from turbulence to relative calm.

“There’s been all sorts of positive movement … in morale and, I think, in the community perception,” Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge said.

REBUILDING TRUST

One key in rebuilding the department and public trust was being from outside, and hiring a command staff that was equally free of “local baggage,” Diaz, 56, said in an interview.

A retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief with close-cut, steel-gray hair, Diaz carries his 5-foot-7 frame with quiet authority.

In addition to the inside promotion of Capt. Michael Blakely to deputy chief, Diaz went to Pasadena to hire Chris Vicino as assistant chief. He named Jeffrey Greer, a Los Angeles police commander, as his other deputy chief.

In January, Diaz announced creation of the Community Services Division, which will coordinate programs that have waned because of budget cuts or would benefit from more direct supervision. Those include the Citizens’ Academy, which teaches residents about the department; Youth Court, which lets young people hear their peers’ cases; and crime-free multihousing, which trains property managers and residents to improve safety and prevent crime.

“These things were getting done, but they were getting done without the support, the bully pulpit, of the chief’s office,” Diaz said.

Alex Tortes, an Eastside community activist and retired Riverside police lieutenant, said Diaz and his command staff appear committed to community policing, which is a priority of residents. Community policing uses neighborhood patrolling and strives to involve residents through watch programs, citizen academies and the like.

‘MEASURE UP’

“Listening to the things that he has done and the steps that he has taken, his actions and his words measure up,” Tortes said.

People inside and outside the department had alleged problems with police promotions, including interference from City Hall. Diaz said no one has tried to influence him, but he did see other issues that could be fixed.

Officers seeking promotion had to meet two separate interview panels — one panel made up of people from the community, and another of outside police experts. Diaz proposed streamlining that to a combined panel.

Applicants also take a written test. The prior chief had graded the tests himself, but Diaz said that didn’t seem fair, since the chief also makes the appointments. He doesn’t do the grading.

Diaz also tries to bring his employees into the process on various issues, officers said.

“I was surprised on the last couple of promotions that someone actually asked for my input,” Lt. Ed Blevins said.

There’s been a learning curve as the new command staff and long-serving officers get to know each others’ methods, Blevins said, but the department is “in a much better spot organizationally.”

Capt. John Carpenter said Diaz has given officers more latitude than in the past.

“He’s letting folks do their job,” Carpenter said. “That’s very refreshing to have the support of the chief’s office in running my command staff.”

FINDING BALANCE

Although Blevins described Leach’s DUI as “a black eye for the organization,” he noted consistent community support for the department.

That support was visible during the new chief’s first big crisis, when Officer Ryan Bonaminio was slain Nov. 7 during a foot pursuit of a hit-and-run suspect. Residents lined the streets, some holding signs or saying thank you, during the funeral procession to Riverside National Cemetery.

Diaz was careful not to hog the spotlight as the department searched for Bonaminio’s killer, instead having the detectives heading the case speak and take questions at news conferences.

Then, after the chief spent three weeks helping Bonaminio’s family cope with their loss, on Nov. 30 Diaz suddenly lost his own son. Gilbert Diaz, 37, died after having flu-like symptoms, likely caused by bacterial meningitis, Diaz said.

There had been no time to mourn or reflect on Bonaminio’s death when Diaz again found himself making arrangements and seeing that everything was taken care of — but this time on his own family’s behalf.

“I think that going into that cop mode, that boss mode, getting things done … was maybe a coping mechanism,” he said.

“You realize there’s no magic words, nothing makes it any better, except it does make a difference that people are there, they’re present, they care about you.”

But leading a police department doesn’t stop because there’s a crisis, Diaz said, and he has tried to remain focused on what he has to do as chief.

RESPONSE TO CRITICS

At times Diaz has even responded to criticisms he considers unfair, like when some people questioned Officer Bonaminio’s actions the night he was killed. In November, he blasted online critics “sitting at home eating Cheetos in their underwear” who may have no experience in police work but feel free to dissect it.

“One of my jobs is to defend the department and its members when it’s appropriate, and I make the decision of when it’s appropriate,” he said.

After all that has happened, including the way his predecessor left, Diaz never forgets he is in the public eye.

“My personal behavior has to be above reproach,” Diaz said.

“That’s a challenge, to be apolitical in your delivery of service but still be politically astute enough to see the train wreck coming your way and to do something about it.”

He appears to have found the right balance. Residents, officers and Diaz’s bosses at City Hall all give him good reviews so far.

“I have not heard an unfavorable comment regarding the chief, even from individuals who typically are critical of the department,” City Manager Brad Hudson said.

IN THE PAST

As the incoming chief, Diaz had to familiarize himself with the department’s history.

That history included shakeups as far back as 1998, when officers shot and killed Tyisha Miller, a 19-year-old black woman, as she sat passed out in her locked car with a gun in her lap; that incident sparked racial tensions and led to state-mandated reforms at the Police Department.

The department also has faced a handful of criminal charges and lawsuits involving officers over the years. In December 2009, a former officer was convicted of charges related to on-duty sex acts; in February 2010, another former officer pleaded guilty to felony charges connected to two armed robberies.

In the past several years, at least six officers have filed claims against the city alleging retaliation and discrimination, including one pending racial discrimination complaint. In 2010, the city settled cases with three officers who claimed their police union activities led to retaliation and discrimination.

The circumstances of Leach’s departure also were a source of frustration for the community. Though city officials have denied knowing Leach had an alcohol problem, the California Highway Patrol’s 500-page report on his Feb. 8, 2010, traffic stop for drunken driving included interviews with several people who said Leach was a known drinker.

The department’s handling of the stop — an officer drove Leach home without a sobriety test — was criticized in the CHP report and by the community as special treatment, a charge the city ultimately acknowledged.

The report found Leach had consumed 11 drinks and five prescription drugs in the course of the afternoon and evening before the traffic stop. Leach pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI and stepped down.

KEEPING POSITIVE

Even with that freighted history, community attitudes at the ground level — toward patrol officers, detectives and dispatchers — have stayed positive, Diaz said, but “at the institutional level, maybe not so much, because of recent events.”

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