A large whiteboard opposite Erik Upson’s desk shows staffing details and a list of needed upgrades for the Benicia Police Department. Officers’ names on the left side, a list of building and equipment needs on the right. But on a corner of the whiteboard behind the police chief’s desk is a drawing of colorful swirls and a quick note: “I love you Dad.”
Erik, 42, became Benicia’s police chief in April and has spent the past five months getting to know the community. With his uniform and crewcut, he is easily recognized during his regular visits to neighborhoods, downtown and other business areas, and parks. "I try to get away from the office as much as I can. I work a beat, I walk a park. Nothing is as important as what happens on the street,” he says.
Erik came to Benicia after 17 years with the Berkeley Police Department. He was a captain—one rank below chief in that department—before coming here. He served in the Army and National Guard, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies with a minor in public policy from Cal Berkeley plus a master’s in emergency services administration from Long Beach State.
While he felt ready to become a police chief, he was choosy about where he applied.
“I was very selective, both professionally and personally,” he says. He considered a post out of state until talking to his wife and their four children about the move. “I withdrew from consideration there.” But he kept looking for a job that would provide the challenges he was seeking, a chance to connect to a new community and allow his family to remain in Pleasant Hill.
He now heads a department with an annual budget of almost $9.5 million and about 50 employees, including about 30 sworn officers, plus about 25 volunteers. His assessment of taking the job here? “I think it’s an incredible fit.”
How did 17 years with the Berkeley Police Department prepare you for this job? You get so much variety in Berkeley that I often say that someone who has worked in Berkeley can work anywhere. You have an understanding of a Police Department’s role in a community. Having that understanding is very important. …
Most officers go into this line of work to be a public servant. Unless they come in very wise and mature, it does take time to learn how that really works, to learn to use discretion. You get a doctorate in that at Berkeley and you can take that knowledge and experience anywhere.
What experiences in Berkeley have you drawn on during your time here? There’s very little here that doesn’t somehow connect to something I did in Berkeley. Things like the Crude by Rail issue—that’s a hot-button issue here and we had lots of issues in Berkeley that brought out a lot of emotion in people. I’ve had experience with that. I’ve got a lot of familiarity with special events. I know about technology, crime, homelessness.
The scale is different here, but so are the resources. The scope of the problems here—the amount of crime, the number of critical situations—is much less than in Berkeley. The civility here is much higher. There’s a willingness to make it better.
What have you learned about Benicia so far? I grew up on an island (in Washington state) and I’ve come to see that Benicia is like an island. Everyone knows everyone, and they’re all connected—sometimes for several generations. There is a sense of uniqueness and independence of other jurisdictions. There’s a deep passion for the city, a deep passion for tradition. It can be hard to make changes because there is such a passion for tradition. Change is always challenging. It brings up its own turbulence.
The economics of the county are a challenge. Infrastructures are a challenge. We need to look at the infrastructure and to provide support for these great people in their work. It’s really good that we have the support that we do because there are things we need to do to move into the future.
Did you tour the police station before taking the job? No, I didn’t. I was surprised. It’s a credit to the staff here and citywide that they really do get it done without the resources that other communities have. That spirit is one of the things that strikes me. It’s just how they think. They’re going to step up and get it done. It inspires me.
How would you rate the facility’s condition? What is needed? I would say it’s pretty poor. It wasn’t built as a police facility. There are lots of walls that we can’t move and that presents a lot of challenges for a modern police department. A purpose-built facility would be better. We need better prisoner holding cells, better locker rooms and changing facilities for our staff. The IT structure needs improvement. Just the physical plant itself—the air conditioning, the lighting—we definitely need to look into that.
Have you identified any changes you’d like to make in the department? First of all, the staff is great. I’ve been looking at the structure of the department in terms of chain of command, how work is done, what divisions we have. We are going to be making changes in the structure next year. We’re looking at what will improve their ability to provide police services to the community, the ability to do that quickly, to respond to crime.
How does the job differ from your expectations when you started? I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared until you are there as a chief and have the level of responsibility that comes with that. The responsibility is huge. Yet I find it very freeing in a way. It’s been an opportunity for me to step up to the next level of leadership, to give input, apply the leadership philosophies that I’ve learned in the past. …
We’re all human beings. Everyone makes mistakes so the challenge is to create an environment where you can learn from them. You don’t want to create an environment of fear. Mistakes of the head, we can work through and learn. But mistakes of the malignant heart will get you gone.
What are your goals for the department? Our vision is to be the greatest police department anywhere. That wasn’t my intention coming in, but coming here and seeing the support of the community, the support of my boss, the people in the department, I think we can do it. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I am an optimist.
We want to be deeply connected to the community, have an absence of crime and absence of the fear of crime without an overpresence (of police) in the community. I want people to feel safe.
How can residents assist police? They need to be actively involved in the neighborhoods and community. Trust your instincts and call us if your suspicions are raised. When you feel something’s not right, call. Our dispatchers are well trained. We can’t be everywhere, so we need the community to contact us if something is happening.
What do you to relax? I read. I like to run—that’s my form of getting away. I go to lots of soccer games because two of my kids play at the club level.