Mesa police Chief George Gascón will leave the city by the end of July to take on his new position as San Francisco police chief, City Manager Chris Brady said Wednesday.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom picked Gascón, despite being an outsider, citing his abilities as a "nuts-and-bolts-type of chief, a cop’s cop and very active in community policing,” the mayor told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Gascón will replace outgoing Chief Heather Fong.
Gascón has been police chief of Mesa, a city of 460,000, since 2006. Before that, he was an assistant police chief in Los Angeles.
“Any time you go into a new opportunity, there is going to be a level of uncertainty,” Gascón told the Chronicle. “But I feel very comfortable.”
Gascón flew to San Francisco Wednesday morning to attend a press conference in which Newsom was scheduled to formally announce his selection at City Hall.
Mesa City Manager Chris Brady said Gascón will stay in Mesa until the end of July. He plans to work with the outgoing chief on making the transition to a new chief.
“We have to figure out who would be best in that role on an interim basis,” Brady said.
It’s likely that one of the current assistant police chiefs — John Meza, Mike Denney or Mike Dvorak — would take on that role.
But the recruitment process for a new chief could take several months. Brady said at this point he doesn’t know if that’s going to be someone within the department or outside.
“We’re going after the best person for Mesa,” Brady said. “We’re looking for someone who’ll roll up their sleeves, get involved in the community, fight crime and keep Mesa safe.”
Hiring Gascón in 2006 was one of the first major decisions Brady made as city manager, something he says he’s been pleased with overall.
“The chief made significant positive changes and made a good department stronger,” Brady said.
He dismissed notions that Mesa’s budget constraints would become an issue in hiring a well-qualified chief this time around.
“We had those constraints when we hired George. It wasn’t any easier back then,” Brady said.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said he’s grateful for Gascón’s nearly three-year tenure with the city. He had nothing but praise for the outgoing chief’s contribution to fighting crime in Mesa.
“Under his leadership, Mesa police has elevated its level of professionalism,” Smith said, adding that he wished him the best for his future endeavor.
Smith especially noted the efforts in community policing and regional cooperation of which Gascón was a key proponent.
“I hope we’ll be able to continue and build upon that foundation,” Smith said.
Bryan Soller, president of Mesa Fraternal Order of Police, described the move as “bittersweet.” Soller echoed other city leaders’ sentiments that the move is not a surprise.
“The chief’s done good things but San Francisco is a big city, and it fits his personality,” Soller said.
Soller said the big decision they now await is who would replace Gascón, something he hoped would stay within Mesa.
“I feel we have the talent within the department. They also already understand Gascón’s vision and will be able to follow through and finish the changes we’ve started,” Soller said.
For the interim chief, Soller said John Meza, assistant chief of operations, is likely to be the pick.
Soller said initiatives like tracking crime statistics through a method called COMPSTAT should stay even after Gascón is gone, as well as the East Valley Criminal Gang and Information Fusion Center, which promotes cooperation among local police departments to nab criminals.
Mesa Police Association President Sgt. Fabian Cota said “whatever the circumstances are to the reasons why he chose to apply in another city, it is a big loss for the citizens of Mesa.”
Cota said the rank-and-file and Gascón worked hard to reduce crime in Mesa.
Gascón is an advocate of sanctuary policies for illegal immigrants, which San Francisco has followed for years. He has described the use of officers to enforce immigration laws as a waste of resources, and he clashed with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over the sheriff’s efforts to arrest illegal immigrants. Gascón told Mesa police not to cooperate with Arpaio’s immigration sweeps.
“He shares the mayor’s support for the sanctuary city policy and he has tackled some of the toughest immigration related law enforcement issues as a police chief in Arizona,” said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Newsom.
Both Mesa union leaders say they’d like the new chief to continue dealing with illegal immigration as has been Mesa’s policy thus far.
“The bottomline is we don’t have the manpower and resources to deal with every illegal immigrant. But we do focus on illegals who are also criminals,” Soller said.
Chris Adamczyk, secretary of the Mesa Police Association, said they would also expect from a new chief “the same commonsense approach to illegal immigration.” But he added that he hopes the new chief would be more clear with the public on the police work Mesa already does in dealing with illegal immigrants.
“Once the public realizes we do enforce immigration laws, and they see our officers are doing their job, it would back off the sanctuary city rhetoric,” Adamczyk said. “It’s an unfortunate thing the bully pulpit goes to the sheriff and unfortunately the good hard work the officer does gets overlooked.”Newsom said he wants Gascón to implement a computer system to detect trends in crimes. The mayor also wants Gascón to improve morale among officers and increase the rate at which the department makes arrests in homicide cases.
Under Gascón, the 800-officer Mesa police department made arrests in more than 90 percent of homicides last year, up from about 50 percent when Gascón took over the department in 2006. San Francisco’s so-called clearance rate is around 25 percent.
Newsom said Fong, who has been chief since 2004, supported his decision to select Gascón.
The Associated Press contributed to this report