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Chief Concerns

[whitespace] New Police Chief? Star Search: San Jose's quest for a new police chief has resulted in a short list of two candidates, acting chief Walt Adkins and Richmond chief William Lansdowne. The rank and file of SJPD have a laundry list of reasons why Adkins is not the right man for the job.

Photo illustration by Christopher Gardner

Longtime colleagues say Walt Adkins lacks the vision and the smarts to lead the SJPD into the coming era

By Michael Learmonth

SOON AFTER BEING appointed deputy chief of the San Jose Police Department, Walt Adkins noticed a group of citizens gathered in a conference room outside his office. In his new role as a department executive, Adkins stopped by to introduce himself. He told the crowd how pleased he was to welcome community members, and asked them if they wouldn't mind introducing themselves and the organizations they represented.

As it turned out, each one represented the same organization: the SJPD. They were all officers in plainclothes. According to two officers present at the incident, Adkins--a decades-long veteran of the department--had recognized none of them.

"He didn't even know his own cops," one of the officers laments.

Just two weeks ago, a similar lapse left Adkins, now San Jose's acting police chief, standing at a podium unable to remember Sen. Barbara Boxer's name so he could introduce her to members of the department. Several people attending the weekend visit say Adkins had to be prompted by an aide.

Neither of these blunders, taken alone, are very significant, but both came up in interviews over the past two weeks as symbols of why Adkins, now a few penstrokes away from being named San Jose's next police chief, does not have the support of his own rank and file. In the weeks leading up to the appointment, a half-dozen present and former high-ranking police officials expressed severe doubts that Adkins has the leadership and management abilities to do the job. Several other city leaders, as well as representatives of several community groups, concurred with that opinion.

Citing concerns about their ability to work with Adkins if he is appointed, the police officers agreed to talk for this story on the condition of anonymity. While all expressed respect for the acting chief, they said that as Adkins' responsibilities have increased, so have the magnitude of his management failings.

"He doesn't have the skills set," says one high-ranking police official who has worked with Adkins for years. "He's had a blessed career, but he's not a leader; he's just not capable."

Paper Tiger

ON PAPER, WALT ADKINS seems to be a good candidate to take over for recently retired Lou Cobarruviaz. He's a 29-year veteran of the force. He holds a master's degree in public administration from San Jose State University. By all accounts, he's been a hard-working, honest and ambitious cop and administrator.

He joined the department in 1969 and has worked his way up, consistently beating the odds and scaling the roadblocks that normally face anyone--plus those that come along with being one of few African Americans on the force. Last year, Adkins became the first African American in the department's history to reach the rank of deputy chief.

Yet many in the department believe Adkins has made a string of poor decisions over the past few years.

They blame him for dismantling a community policing initiative that put cops in troubled schools on a permanent basis. They charge that by instituting changes in the way police patrol the city's annual Cinco de Mayo celebration in 1997, he allowed a fiasco to occur. And they say he allowed the department to stand still in critical areas such as recruitment of women.

Furthermore, sources close to the selection process say that as a candidate for chief, he presents a shallow vision for the department's future, precisely at a time when ambitious change is needed.

"He is not a man of new ideas," laments a retired member of the force who says he nevertheless respects Adkins' years of service to the department. "He's just the status quo."

As Adkins vies for the job running the nation's 11th largest police department, his critics say he is unprepared to assume the role of a public figure with duties of both politician and CEO, speaking for the department and leading the work force.

When Metro requested an interview for this story, Adkins declined through spokesman Sgt. Derek Edwards, who said the acting chief had been offended by an item in Public Eye, Metro's political column, which reported that two finalists remained for the chief's job, and described Adkins as "unpopular."

Edwards also opined that he thought the paper should "just let the process [for chief selection] take its course"--without media or public scrutiny.

Cop Out

THE TIMING of the chief selection could hardly be more critical. With all six of the department's top positions--chief, assistant chief and four deputy chiefs--having turned over in the past year, the department is in a period of unprecedented flux.

The next chief will inherit a department with a stellar nationwide reputation in a low-crime community, but a department facing crucial challenges, particularly in public perception.

The SJPD was embarrassed recently by the much-publicized activities of Officer Johnny Venzon Jr., who is accused of committing a spate of thefts while on duty. The department only recently closed its investigation of another one of its own, Officer Thomas Harris, who committed suicide last year after allegedly shooting his wife.

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the city and conducted this spring by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that the department lacks leadership in the area of community policing. At a time when virtually all big-city police departments are institutionalizing the philosophy, one high-level department source characterized San Jose's programs as "foundering."

Community policing is a catch-all term used by departments nationwide, who have found that as neighborhoods get to know their police officers, crime rates drop.

Last year, Adkins dismantled one community-policing initiative called the School Liaison Program. When it was created, the program offered specially selected officers with an interest in children the opportunity to work after-hours in schools. The 15 officers involved set up truancy and tutoring programs. When he took over as patrol commander, sources say, Adkins trashed the project. After looking at the budget and seeing overtime pay going to the 15 officers involved in the program, Adkins decided it was an inequitable expenditure of funds. He then overhauled the program: Instead of offering participating officers a regular assignment, he changed it to rotating assignments, available to any officer wanting to pick up some overtime.

The staff of the so-called Project Crackdown program in the Santee neighborhood and Poco Way reportedly felt as if they had "lost" their police officers.

A cop who had been involved in the program explains the effect on students: "If you build something and then eliminate it, it causes more of an image problem than if you never did it at all."

Sources say community policing was capably initiated in San Jose a decade ago, but that the philosophy was never institutionalized.

The PERF report, which was obtained by Metro after the chief's office refused to release it, indicts the department for failing to institute a coherent community-policing plan. The report states that the department has "not clearly articulated the overall vision and direction for its community-policing strategy."

For years, Adkins' critics say he has dropped the ball while he was in a position to lead the department with new community-policing initiatives.

"The community has to feel a tie to the police department working for it," explains one police source critical of the move.

"I don't know that we've had that focus for five or six years," says another.


City manager leans toward hiring locals.

Lansdowne wins high marks from colleagues.


The Gals in Blue

ADKINS' CRITICS ALSO SAY that while the SJPD was once on the forefront of departments that recognized the value of promoting women, has lost its lead in this regard. Wiggsy Sivertsen, a faculty member at San Jose State who served on the panel that chose Lou Cobarruviaz, argues that the next chief must make the promotion of women a priority.

"I think the department needs to be much more aggressive in promoting women and other underrepresented groups into positions of leadership," Sivertsen says. "The department took a great leap under McNamara, [but] there was a leveling off under Cobarruviaz," she says. Adkins, she adds, has been in a position that should have allowed him to influence the department in a more progressive direction.

Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu observes that women have had much greater opportunity in the District Attorney's office than in the San Jose Police Department.

"There's a real glass ceiling over there," she says.

In the wake of the murder/suicide incident involving Officer Harris, the department has become sensitized to the potential for workplace violence.

But when Adkins met with police dispatcher Angela Cooper, who complained that Officer Lemar Dunson was harassing her, she felt as though Adkins was trying to intimidate her into not filing charges.

Instead of showing concern for her complaint, Cooper said, Adkins attempted to preserve the career of Dunson, a seven-year veteran of the force. Sinunu, who investigated the case, determined that there had been no criminal conduct.

But to this day, department insiders say, Adkins holds a grudge against former chief Lou Cobarruviaz, who conducted the department probe into the incident.

In a profile published in the San Jose Mercury News, Cobarruviaz characterized his relationship with Adkins by saying they were "like brothers." But department sources say that in the wake of the Cooper investigation, Adkins had to be persuaded to attend Cobarruviaz' retirement party. Cobarruviaz was not available to comment at press time.

Hazardous Incident

ANOTHER JUDGMENT CALL that many of the rank and file hold against Adkins came at a time when the SJPD was trying to put one of its darkest moments behind it.

In November of last year, police say, Harris shot his wife and threw her bound body in the trunk of the family car. For days afterward he lied to police investigators and posed as a man grieving for his wife, determined to find her killer. Then, four days after his wife's body was found, Harris shot himself in the hills above Los Gatos.

The case was an embarrassment for the department, not just because of the officer's crime, but because the department had not detained Harris as a suspect, allowing him to take his own life. It was a tragedy for Harris's son and brother, both of whom are San Jose police officers.

Then last month, the department and the community were reminded of the incident, but in a way few expected. Walt Adkins made the decision to bestow a Hazardous Duty Award on Harris, posthumously.

"Walt was told, 'Don't do this,' " says a police department source. The award, the source pointed out, overshadowed the heroism of other officers being honored at the same time, and opened a wound the department had been trying to heal.

But not all police fault Adkins for awarding the officer. If Harris deserved the award before the tragedy, they say, it shouldn't be taken away.

"I can't condone what he did, but he [Harris] was a hell of a man and a hell of a police officer," says one former colleague. But another higher-ranking police official speculated that if Harris had been accused of selling drugs rather than murdering his wife, he would never have received an award.

Further angering--and puzzling--the rank-and-file, Adkins misspoke at the June ceremony honoring the officers, describing the Harris incident as "scintillating."

Stinko de Mayo

BUT WHILE SOME POLICE complain about Adkins' oratory ineptitude, many are more concerned about his judgment as a commander.

After he assumed the coveted and demanding post as commander of the patrol division in 1997, Adkins ordered changes in the approach the department would take in policing the 1997 Cinco de Mayo celebration.

He told his command staff he wanted to adopt a softer approach than in the past and called for a limited police presence. Officers received orders to remain on the periphery of the celebration and not to congregate in groups.

In previous years, police presence at Cinco de Mayo was purposely overt. Officers wore jumpsuits and congregated in groups, striving for maximum visibility. Despite the increasingly unwieldy size of the event--some crowd estimates went as high as 400,000--there had never been any major problems.

"People who are in a crowd see a good number of cops, and it keeps them honest when they might otherwise be unruly," explains an officer who is a veteran of many Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Adkins' plan was an utter failure, as he must have realized while watching from a helicopter as the festival devolved into a bottle-throwing melee between police in riot gear and drunken revelers.

Two officers were hurt. In the end, it took 16 arrests and a phalanx of officers on foot, motorcycle and horseback to regain order on Santa Clara Street.

After the debacle, Adkins blamed the riot on the event's size and the fact that cruising had been banned, forcing some of the rowdy element to attend the event on foot.

But inside the police department, many fingers pointed at Adkins. His critics felt vindicated after the department reverted to its previous policing approach and the 1998 Cinco de Mayo celebration went off without a hitch.

Adkins further eroded the confidence of his command staff at a budget meeting last year. As commander of patrol, he was responsible for presenting the equipment needs of the division for the 1997-98 fiscal year. A source in the department says that among the critical needs for that year were evidence vans, bulletproof vests and unmarked cars for detective work.

At the time, the source said, the unmarked fleet was in such bad shape that detectives were sometimes packed six to a car. Cars with high mileage broke down frequently, and sometimes detectives had no transportation to get to an interview with a witness.

Adkins' equipment request for that year was a new horse trailer.

"We probably do need a new trailer, and I think we need a new truck," admits a disappointed officer, "but in the large scheme of things, is it a priority?"

Setting Sites

AS THE SEARCH FOR San Jose's next police chief moves forward, a person close to the selection panel summed it up by saying that "Adkins' list of negatives is much longer than his positives."

Officials from other police departments expressed dismay that San Jose had not been able to draw a stronger pool of candidates for the job. Many felt that the department should be able to attract the best and brightest applicants from the nation's best-run departments.

A former deputy chief in San Jose and the new chief of police in Palo Alto, Pat Dwyer, describes the type of candidate he believes San Jose city manager Regina Williams should be looking for.

"The question any city manager should answer in choosing a chief for a city like San Jose," Dwyer says, "is where is the visionary leadership that is going to take the department to a higher plane?"

Observers doubt that at this point in the process (a short list of three candidates has now dropped to two, see related stories on this page and page 11) any new candidates will be entering the picture. The hiring process for the next chief is on a tight timetable. Mayor Susan Hammer leaves office in November because of term limits, and Regina Williams is likely to soon follow.

Whoever takes over the force will inherit a talent pool at the department that by all accounts is deep.

An officer who contacted Metro but asked to remain anonymous expressed his feelings on the search.

"We want someone from the outside who is educated, who has a vision," he said. "The morale is at an all-time low, and [police officials] are afraid of talking."

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From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of Metro.

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