Mesa leaders say Police Chief George Gascón's apparent interest in San Francisco's top law-enforcement job is not surprising, given the lure of the big city, a high-profile position and the chief's family ties in the region.
When a top post opens nationally, Gascón, well-known in policing circles, is courted by headhunters, officials say.
"And when you're in a position he is in and a top job in the country comes up, it's human nature to put your hat in the ring and find out how your stock is, particularly since his family is in California," said Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh.
Gascón applied for the top position at the San Francisco Police Department, Mesa City Manager Chris Brady confirmed Wednesday.
Even when Mesa hired Gascón in August 2006, then from his position as assistant police chief in the high-profile Los Angeles Police Department, the instinct was "someone of his qualifications and background and his ability would come to Mesa, make an impact and then move on to bigger things," said Councilman Scott Somers. "Looks like that thought is coming to fruition."
Mesa boosted the salary from an upper limit of $144,000 to $170,000 to snag Gascón.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said he spoke with Gascón on Wednesday and was told that he wasn't actively looking to leave Mesa, but it was more a case of the opening coming up in San Francisco, and Gascón decided to apply.
Gascón does not have a contract with Mesa and can leave at any time. He has not returned several calls to the Tribune seeking comment.
One card in Mesa's favor, perhaps, is that both police unions are publicly backing the chief, not always a given in some cities, where friction between the brass and unions is common.
A San Francisco Police Department spokeswoman, Sgt. Lyn Tomioka, said finalists have not been named for the position and the department doesn't intend to release those names. A final decision is not expected until June.
Brady said if Gascón were to leave, he would be missed.
"He's very talented, and he's done a tremendous amount of work within the police department. I'm hoping he stays," Brady said.
By the same token, Brady said he would understand if Gascón were to leave, given the chief has family in California.
"I can understand why a large city would be attractive for him to consider," Brady said.
Mesa Police Association President Fabian Cota said the department has battled rumors about the chief going to another city, most recently to Seattle and Oakland, Calif. Cota said he would be surprised if Gascón left.
"Generally, I would be very surprised. Crime is down. Our department is still under construction, and we're still working with the chief to implement major policy changes," Cota said.
Bryan Soller, president of Mesa's Fraternal Order of Police union, said there were "a bunch of rumors" involving Gascón applying for other positions.
Soller said it may be Mesa's budget woes that prompted Gascón's decision.
"The chief's done a wonderful job. The problem with Mesa is our budget. We've cut officer positions and are just going in the wrong direction," he said.
In his nearly three-year tenure, Gascón has led the department in reducing serious crimes like homicides and rapes by 34 percent. This year also marked the longest time in about three decades that Mesa did not have a murder, until May 3. Gascón also places emphasis on community policing and preventative efforts, to engage the community and at-risk populations, to avoid crimes.
Gascón, 54, revamped the department, infusing technology into policing. Among his more prominent initiatives - COMPSTAT - a computerized crime-tracking system that has helped the department target problem areas. He also steered the East Valley Criminal Gang and Information Fusion Center, which helps local police agencies communicate better in solving crimes.
Smith described Gascón as focused and intense, a "student of police work and policy," and overall "a policeman's policeman."
The police chief has also been in the spotlight for his recent trip to Washington where he testified on his strongly held position that illegal immigration laws need to be enforced by the federal government "and relieve state and local jurisdictions of the burden."
But that trip also came under scrutiny because an immigration activist group paid for his travel costs.
Following criticism, Gascón announced his regret at "the hint of concern raised by some regarding this situation" and that he would pay the cost of the trip on his own.
Brady said Wednesday as far as he was concerned, "that chapter is over. Obviously there were issues, but the chief recognized there were perception problems, and he stepped up and he dealt with it."
Things had gotten tense between Mesa police and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office following an October raid on Mesa's municipal buildings, including City Hall.
But unlike a previous Sheriff Joe Arpaio raid in Mesa, over which Gascón and Arpaio ended up trading barbs in the media, this time it was the mayor who took on the public platform to voice Mesa's displeasure at Arpaio's unannounced raid. The raid resulted in the arrests of three suspected illegal immigrants on city grounds. Gascón stayed away from any major public statements.
In the Washington testimony, however, when questioned about the City Hall raid, Gascón criticized the sheriff's office for not communicating with Mesa before doing the late-night raid.
Vice Mayor Kyle Jones said he was disappointed to hear that Gascón is considering leaving and he assumed that these political differences would have nudged Gascón a bit to take the step.
"I understand the challenge he has with the illegal immigration issue, and it's an assumption on my part, but I'm sure it's a factor in the decision," Jones said.
The confirmation of Gascón being an applicant for the San Francisco position comes the same day the Mesa Police Association issued a statement accusing Brady of threatening to "uproot a key position" from the department. The group said it was referring to Gascón.
"For some reason, they think that I'm trying to dismiss the police chief," Brady said. "I'm not sure where this is coming from. I'm still baffled by the whole thing. The officers from the (police association) were in my office three or four times in the last 45 days. Cota wondered if I was going to let the chief's contract terminate. The police chief does not have a contract.
"I told him I supported the chief and wanted him to stay on board. I still support the chief. I think he's done a good job," Brady said.
In the statement issued by the police association, "Chris Brady has a track record of being unreasonable and uncooperative," said Mesa police Detective Nate Gafvert. "It appears that he has created a hostile work environment with the chief, and it is a matter of time until the frontline officers will feel that effect."
The police association has not given specific reasons as to why it is making the allegations against Brady.