Chief kept cool during fiery baptism
By Lisa O'Neill Hill
(Riverside, CA) -- Before Riverside officials released state Attorney General Bill Lockyer's plans to reform the Police Department, Police Chief Russ Leach gathered his troops to answer questions.
He said he wanted his officers to know what was going on before they read about it in the newspaper or saw it on television.
"I think it's important they hear from the chief," Leach said.
In his first six months on the job, Riverside officers and community members have heard a lot from Leach.
He has spoken to numerous community groups and met with dozens of residents to talk about his plans to put a shine back on the badge of the embattled department, his efforts to forward community policing, and about his belief that good work deserves recognition.
They are messages the new chief has tried to convey in spite of some difficult times and distractions, including the on-duty death of a respected detective and the unusual, highly publicized reform agreement with Lockyer's office. "I knew it was going to be a challenging job, which is what I wanted," said Leach, whose first day was Sept. 18. "There is nowhere I would rather be than here. I have been through a lot in six months, absolutely." First days When Leach first came to Riverside, the department was still reeling over the 1998 police shooting of Tyisha Miller. Many officers were bitter about former Chief Jerry Carroll's decision to fire the officers whose shots killed Miller. The 19-year-old Rubidoux woman had been sitting unresponsive in a locked car with a gun on her lap. The officers said they fired when it appeared Miller reached for the gun. "The first day I got here, I'm looking at lawsuits that have been left over, reports about the department, all sorts of people walking around with scars from the past, stories from the past," Leach said. The new chief wants officers to concentrate on the future. He has said time and time again that he wants the department to move forward and begin healing. He has slowly but firmly made changes with an eye to improving the department. "I'm focused on tomorrow and my vision here is to make this a great police department," Leach said. He has promoted more than 20 officers, including Assistant Chief Mike Smith and Deputy Chief Audrey Wilson, who he calls his "right arm." He has pushed for and implemented a 24-hour lieutenant watch commander system to provide more accountability and supervision for officers. He has formed a task force to deal with Lockyer's reforms, which will be implemented over the next five years. Leach recently held his first meeting of a chief's advisory board he formed to solicit feedback on department policy and practices. "He definitely came in and was given a baptism by fire, and I think he has responded to it very well," said Riverside police Sgt. Jay Theuer, president of the Riverside Police Officers' Association. "He has shown leadership in that office that we haven't seen in years. He makes good decisions. He is an excellent communicator. He has an outgoing personality and he works very well with everyone in the department and the city." The chief's background Leach, 52, came to Riverside from a post as deputy director of DARE America, an anti-drug organization. He had been chief in El Paso,Texas, after spending 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. He's savvy and forthright, a man with a quick wit and a no-nonsense approach, many say. Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge said he appreciates Leach's sense of humor and professionalism. Leach has demonstrated his professionalism in the way he has handled recent incidents, including the reform agreement with Lockyer's office, the mayor said. "In the negotiations with the attorney general, he was skillful, he was informed, he was a very good negotiator," Loveridge said. "I give him exceptionally high marks." An agreement between the Police Department and Lockyer's office was entered into court on March 5. State and federal officials have been investigating the way the Police Department operates since the Miller shooting sparked allegations of racism. City officials have undertaken numerous reforms in the wake of the controversial shooting, including hiring Leach. Many say the department already has benefited from his leadership and experience. Other important changes include establishing a stronger form of civilian review and putting experienced officers on all shifts. Some of the criticism that arose after the Miller shooting centered on the relative inexperience of the officers involved. The direct approach One of Leach's priorities will be to make sure the state attorney general's reforms are implemented on time. He said he wants to remain chief for at least five years and is eager to see all the reforms finalized. Loveridge said he also admires Leach's direct approach. "He's very open in his appraisals and decisions," Loveridge said. "He's willing to appear at different forums and talk about the choices he's made." Bill Howe, a former UCR police chief and member of the city's first police-review commission, said he is impressed with the way the forthright Leach immediately began meeting with various community groups. "He has stated he is going to be making some changes, all for the good of the department," Howe said. Already, Leach has made good on his word to promote good people and diversify the department, Howe said. Leach said the lowest point in his first several months at the department was on Jan. 13, when Riverside Detective Doug Jacobs was killed helping another officer deal with a complaint of a loud radio. Losing an officer is the toughest thing a chief can go through, Leach said. But he said he was buoyed by the residents and children who had lined the route from the church to the cemetery to show support for the department. In spite of the hardships and challenges, Leach said he enjoys his job. He knows, however, that he hasn't been at the helm long enough to ruffle many feathers. Although Leach is still in his "honeymoon period," he should not have many problems if he continues down the path he has started on, Howe said. "Honeymoons don't last forever but I think with his professionalism . . . he's going to be here for a long time in spite of opposition he might run into," Howe said. The chief says he knows he can't worry about the honeymoon period and that he is confident in the lines of communication he has established and teamwork he has inspired. "There's no place I would rather be," he said. "I love coming to work. I'm still coming to work with a smile on my face . . . I'm proud to say I'm from Riverside."
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