The Fresno Police Department swore in 28 new officers, promoted 12 civilian staff members, and recognized four new sergeants and a new lieutenant in an emotionally moving ceremony Friday morning at Valdez Hall.
Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama noted that the department is the largest in the city’s history with 848 sworn positions — 16 more than it had in 2008 before the Great Recession hit.
It helps, of course, that the officers and dispatchers are the highest-paid in central California thanks to the backing of the city council and Mayor Jerry Dyer.
But the city, Balderrama said, is also bucking a nationwide trend of shrinking departments by convincing young men and women to take on the challenges — and rewards — of a law-enforcement career.
He also noted that shootings and homicides have been significantly reduced since he left Oklahoma City to become Fresno’s Top Cop in January 2021.
GV Wire’s Jahz Tello interviewed Balderrama after the swearing-in ceremony. Here is the interview lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Q. What Is the Significance of Today’s Event?
Balderrama: “This one is particularly very special to us because we now have more police officers working for the Fresno Police Department than we’ve ever had in the history of this city. We also have more police officers than we’ve ever had in patrol. And we know that police visibility does help in reducing violent crime. We’ve seen those numbers drop. So all I can say is that we’re definitely getting better as an agency, not just in policies and in training and in performance and professionalism, but also bigger. It’s important to balance those two. We want to make sure that our personnel are the best trained in the Valley.”
Q. How Far Is the Department From Being Fully Staffed?
A. “You know, as I go to police conferences with major city chiefs across America and in California, people are very surprised that here in Fresno, we are within one year of being fully staffed with 900 police officers. And we could be the first large agency, not just in California, but in the United States, to be fully staffed. There are other organizations experiencing hundreds of vacancies. San Francisco, last time I checked, had 500 (vacancies) and the Dallas Police Department had 600. I believe LAPD has 700 vacancies. And right now we have three police academies going on, which is going to give us the (recruits we need). How does it feel? It feels great to live in a community where you’re supported, and it feels great to be the chief of our police department, which is performing exceptionally well. It’s also amazing to have people around you who are supportive — our city council, our mayor, our city manager. It’s a very unique situation for policing in this century.”
Q. What’s the Key to Successful Policing?
A. “It’s not just about safety. It’s about trust. I believe that it’s impossible to police a community that doesn’t trust you. So we have to continue going out and reaching out, connecting, and engaging with our community because we need to hear from them. Just last night, I was at two community meetings where people had questions. People (also) wanted to give us information. They wanted to receive information from me. So that constant engagement is very important to goal-setting for our agency and also for the allocation of resources. We’ve got to meet the needs of the community. You’ll never know what those needs are unless you get out there and talk to them.”
Q. When You Became Police Chief, Reducing Violent Crime Was Your No. 1 Job. How Is That Going?
A. “We were really wondering, how are we going to lower violent crime? You know, shootings were up. Set a new record in 2020, the year before I got here with 732 shootings and we had a 25-year high in homicides with 74. Not only that, we had about 150 vacancies and we didn’t know how we were going to find all those people. So, how we were going to reduce violent crime with not enough personnel? But we were able to do it. And it’s not about me. It’s about my team and the leaders that I put in place so that we can make the job happen. Look at what our recruiting team has done. I mean, they can put on a presentation on how to do it because we’ve done it the right way here in Fresno, California.
“Compared to last year, right now, homicides are down by 68%. Also, shootings are down by 20%. Crime overall is down about 20%. So the number of officers helps make a difference. Smart policing, intelligence that policing works. And, we’re going to continue to do more of it until we get crime down to a very minor and manageable level.”
Q. What’s Your Pitch to Young People for a Career in Law Enforcement?
A. “The biggest incentive is being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s doing a very, very important job that very few people can do. The money is really secondary. You know, you can make money doing anything here in California, but doing something that is worthwhile, that’s the big incentive and that’s what we’re seeing. … It’s not easy to make a change and to give hope to the community. But that’s exactly what we’re doing here.
“Today we promoted four new sergeants and one new lieutenant, and there are going to be more coming. Every year, we lose about 30 people, and that is an opportunity for others to step up. I think that’s one of the big attractions. We’re a large agency with about 40 different jobs, morale is up, and being the highest paid (in the region) helps, but I don’t want police officers who are doing this for the money. I want them doing this for the mission.”