Mesa police packed the City Council’s chambers, but it was for a celebration, not an emergency.
Officers and family members watched as Mesa Mayor John Giles swore in Ken Cost as the city’s new police chief, dropping the “interim” from his title after a four-month audition.
Cost, 49, was greeted with a standing ovation – an expression of far more support than former Chief Ramon Batista received during a two-year reign that ended with his abrupt resignation in November.
The Mesa Police Association had orchestrated a 95 percent vote of no confidence against Batista and a billboard popped up last summer in central Mesa, calling for Batista’s ouster.
Mesa has gone outside the department when hiring three of the last five police chiefs, with varying degrees of success.
They include George Gascon from the Los Angeles Police Department; Frank Milstead from the Phoenix Police Department; and Batista, who retired from the Tucson police after a 35-year-career.
Gascon modernized the department, launching the Crime Stat policing model still used today, before becoming San Francisco District Attorney; he resigned that job last year to run for DA in his native Los Angeles.
Milstead refined Gascon’s approach and was an early advocate of body worn cameras; he now heads the state Department of Public Safety.
Batista angered his troops reacting to two high profile use-of-force incidents.
“I think it’s a healthy thing to do occasionally, to look outside the organization,’’ Giles said. “In this situation, we knew he (Cost) was the right person. There was no necessity to look outside the department. It became obvious the interim label should be dropped.’’
Cost started his career as a patrol officer in 1995 and worked his way up through the ranks. As a commander, he headed patrol in the Fiesta District and Human Resources and Training, an assignment expected to help him as chief. He has served as chief of patrol throughout the city since 2018, when he was promoted to assistant chief.
“He’s always been a very stable force in the police department,’’ Giles said. “He’s very much admired by the people he’s been working with for so many years.’’
That admiration was immediately obvious outside the council chambers as Cost posed for photographs with a large group of Mesa officers, making it clear his selection was a highly popular choice.
Former Mesa Chief John Meza and Gilbert Police Chief Mike Soelberg, a former Mesa assistant chief, both returned for the festivities.
Meza said he recognized Cost’s potential for leadership early in the new chief’s career and that he is not surprised by the promotion.
“He’s always been fair. He’s always treated people with respect and dignity,’’ Meza said.
Cost said one of his most pressing concerns is hiring 110 new officers a year for the next three years, a total of 330. That number is the equivalent of replacing the entire patrol division.
Mesa currently has 776 sworn officers with 326 in patrol.
“Our focus is on the recruitment and hiring, and to make sure we get it right,’’ Cost said. “The challenge is having a young group of officers coming out of the academy.’’
Cost likened the situation to 20 years ago, when Mesa police had another surge in hiring to keep pace with the city’s growth. Now, Cost faces a redeployment of officers to a new northeast Mesa patrol district, cutting the expansive Superstition Patrol District in half.
Giles noted that Cost had been in charge of hiring in the past, making him for the perfect selection at a time when so many new officers are needed.
He said Mesa will be competing against other police departments in the region for a relatively small group of qualified candidates.
Batista tightened the department’s use of force police after two violent incidents captured on police body cameras, but poisoned his relationship with rank and file officers, creating a rift that never seemed to heal.
One incident showed an officer repeatedly punching an uncooperative domestic violence suspect. The incident prompted protests by the East Valley chapter of the NAACP and a federal lawsuit.
A separate incident showed an officer using pressure points to control a teenaged suspect as police searched him for firearms and moved him into a police SUV.
“I don’t feel our officers were at their best,’’ Batista said at the time while releasing the video. “I don’t feel this incident went the way it should have went.’’
Mesa officers interpreted that comment as Batista rushing to judgment against them, not waiting for the results of an internal affairs investigation.