As the successful bidder on an auction item donated by the Benicia Police Department, I recently spent a full day observing its inner workings. Patty Baron, a retired officer who is now a civilian in charge of the department’s volunteer patrol and various other items, provided many insights during a tour of the facilities. We began with the building’s central corridor, where photographs from the 1940’s to the present are on display, offering a historical perspective of a small town’s emergence into modern city policing. The walls are also adorned with staff recognitions, which, according to Baron, is a relatively new program. These and the many other upgrades to the facility, along with significant technology improvements over the past several years, seem to mirror changes in the way the department is managed under its Chief, Andrew Bidou.
Two phrases came up repeatedly during my vist: “community policing” and “contemporary management.” The tour, a ride-along on patrol, a shooting lesson and lunch with the Chief and Detective Bob Oettinger offered a glimpse into how those concepts are put into practice and affect citizens. Most importantly, it’s reflected in a low crime rate. Historically low, in 2011 Benicia’s crime rate fell to its lowest in 25 years. Yet this poses unique challenges to the PD, who must meet “huge” community expectations, and also make sure officers are trained and ready when crimes do occur. “We have the same crimes as any other city, we just have fewer of them,” said Detective Oettinger. So although the department had to cut $500,000 from the 2011 budget, training remained a high priority. “In order to balance budgets, most departments cut training. I would rather have a reduced, well trained, educated, sophisticated force. A little money spent in the short term saves big dollars in the long run,” said Chief Bidou. “The number one focus is keeping our people current to ensure public safety. We want the right people in the right places.” Bidou cut staff, then consolidated resources and re-engineered staffing to maximize efficiencies. Grants and partnerships with nonprofit agencies have also helped bridge budget gaps. A second K9 was recently purchased, through a grant from the Syar Foundation, so that two fully-trained K9’s are available 24/7.
Bidou, who is married with two children, has an impressive resume, especially given his age (he is 44). His experience and educational achievements are too lengthy to print here, but are available online at www.ci.benicia.ca.us. They include S.W.A.T. training and the FBI Academy, and degrees and certificates from St. Mary’s College, Cornell University, the University of Virginia, Boston University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Bidou grew up in Benicia, but left to begin his career in Newark, California, where he rose to the position of Captain.
Being proactive, instead of reactive is also helping to reduce crime. The ride-along with Officer Mark Simonson, who, as part of the re-engineering, is assigned to traffic but also provides backup to patrol officers when needed, included two minor incidents, one of which illustrated the point. We passed a parked car with two men sitting inside, on a quiet street in the middle of the day, arousing enough suspicion to circle back to check it out. By way of explaining, Simonson offered, “Crime is mobile, and routine stops are often a gateway to other things. Yesterday, during a traffic stop, an illegal weapon was found in the vehicle. There’s a ripple effect when we are proactive about crime prevention—the word gets out.”
Another aspect is “point of contact” service. “Every time we answer a false alarm or a call from a community member is an opportunity to have a conversation with that individual and address concerns,” said Bidou. “We do a ton of community outreach.” Indeed, the department logged in almost 5,000 volunteer hours last year for its many community programs, which include Special Olympics and Relay For Life. Bidou instituted the popular “Coffee with the Cops” program, where citizens meet with members of the PD for informal discussions on crime trends. These and other programs, goals and management practices add up to what Bidou refers to as “a departmental paradigm shift.”