Citizen Staff Writer
Assistant Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor apparently will inherit a department facing budget cutbacks in a city combating an increase in violent and drug-related crimes.
City Manager Mike Letcher announced that Villaseñor was his selection as the next police chief in an internal city memo Friday afternoon.
The City Council will vote on the selection Tuesday during its regular meeting. Letcher appoints the police chief, but council approval is required before Villaseñor can take up his new position May 8.
Villaseñor conceded at a news conference that he is nervous about taking on the post during tough economic times, but said he also is excited.
“I never thought that for sure I would end up here, but I will say for the past 10 years I’ve had some thoughts,” he said Friday. “My whole career has prepared me for this.
“I’ve served in every section of this department and I’ve commanded every bureau of this department,” he said. “I now want the opportunity to use those skills and experiences to run the agency.”
This was the second search for a police chief since Richard Miranda retired from the job in June. Interim Chief Kermit Miller has run the department since then.
City officials conducted a nationwide search late last year and narrowed a list of applicants to four finalists before abandoning the process in March in favor of a new search limited to Tucson Police Department employees.
Villaseñor, a third-generation Tucsonan, has spent his entire career in the department, the past nine years as an assistant chief.
He has been a SWAT commander and headed the internal affairs unit.
Villaseñor developed and initiated the police community-based policing initiative and oversaw the police response to riots on Fourth Avenue following the 1997 and 2001 NCAA championship basketball games involving the Arizona Wildcats.
He was named Officer of the Year by the department in 1996, awarded the department Medal of Merit three times and received the department’s Distinguished Medal of Service.
“I think it’s a tremendous step from even an assistant chief up to the chief of police,” Villaseñor said. “I’ll be honest: As an assistant chief it was nice having that buffer there and now I am that buffer.”
The 29-year veteran of the department said he plans changes and will strive to improve the department’s reputation.
“I think we enjoy the reputation as one of the finest agencies in the country, but if you start to say ‘OK, we’ve arrived, we’re here and that’s good,’ you don’t improve and you don’t grow,” he said. “That’s why I need to set for myself the standard that we need to improve.”
Villaseñor has the support of the Tucson Police Officers Association and Mayor Bob Walkup.
Walkup said he was encouraged to hear that Villaseñor planned to bring change to the growing department.
“We have to change to stay up with changing conditions,” Walkup said.
Criminals are constantly using new tactics and the department needs to adapt to address those changes, Walkup said.
Police union President Larry Lopez said the association’s decision to endorse Villaseñor was a “clear-cut” one.
The nod came Friday morning after Tucson police Capt. Brett Klein was eliminated from consideration and hours before Villaseñor’s appointment was announced.
Lopez said the association based its decision on interviews it had with Klein, Villaseñor and the third candidate – Assistant Chief John Leavitt – and on officers’ experience of working with all three on a day-to-day basis.
“We knew their abilities,” Lopez said of the candidates. “We were completely familiar with them.”
Beki Quintero, president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, said she was pleased with the choice.
“I know (Villaseñor) is very hands on, very in tune with the people and he listens,” Quintero said. “He knows our issues and (we) think he is very open to listening to us.
“I’m confident he is going to do a great job,” she said.
Ronni Kotwica, president of the Midtown Palo Verde Neighborhood Association, told the Citizen she sat on a panel that interviewed the candidates Thursday afternoon and saw both weakness and strength in all three finalists.
“Obviously we had a very small say in what ultimately transpired,” she said. “The community committee was doing the interviews as a community group. And, as I said, each had their strong points, and the powers that be are the ones that ultimately made the decision.
“I wish him the best and I’m sure he knows he has strong community leaders he is going to have to listen to,” she said. “He is sensitive to the needs of the neighborhoods, and I am sure he will be accepting the advice he is offered.”
Villaseñor said the department would continue an aggressive approach to combating violent and drug-related crimes.
Last year the department investigated a record 74 homicides.
Villaseñor also spoke of using laws preventing felons from possessing guns to bring charges against dangerous criminals and crack down on gun-related crimes.
Crime will not be Villaseñor’s only challenge; the city faces one of its leanest budget years.
Lopez said the department would face operational-budget cuts while striving to meet a staffing goal of 2.4 officers for every 1,000 residents.
“It’s going to be a challenge and we have hard times ahead of us,” Lopez said. “It’s our hope that we move along and continue to grow as the city grows.”
“I think that obviously right now that that is something that has taken a little bit of a back seat with the economic situation that we’re facing,” he said. “We will continue to go towards that goal, but it will be a while before we get there. We will work with the resources that we have.”
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic stimulus law, may be a source of funding for more officers and support personnel including crime scene specialists, he said.
“It’s a wide spectrum approach to it where it’s not just always going to cops, but also recognizing the importance of support personnel to free police officers up to go back to their basic function,” he said in an interview with the Citizen. “A lot of cops’ time is spent sitting around and waiting for crime scene (technicians) or sitting around and waiting for evidence (to be gathered). If we can get more personnel of that type, we can get the cops back out quicker.”
Miranda, now an assistant city manager, said Villaseñor’s experience during challenging times will help him in his new duties.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were marred by internal strife stemming from the drunken-driving-related crash of a high-ranking officer, the arrest and dismissal of several other officers and the department’s handling of the riots on Fourth Avenue.
“I think that the challenges that we faced in the ’90s were internal in terms of the lack of communication,” Miranda said. “He’s been forced to learn that he is going to have to communicate with his people, he’s going to have to communicate with the public and he’s going to have to resolve a lot of those issues himself.”
Miranda said Villaseñor is on the brink of a massive undertaking.
“I have to reflect back on my first year and what it was like and there was a lot of eye-openings,” Miranda said. “The challenges that he is going to face is the enormity of the job. The job requires someone to be paying attention to the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s not until you have that badge on that shirt that you realize that you are responsible for the entire public safety of this community, and that’s a wake-up call,” he said.
Miranda said Villaseñor also will realize that he is responsible for the officers who serve under him, referring to the shooting deaths of Officer Erik Hite last year and Officer Patrick Hardesty in 2003.
“I hope he never has to go through it, because seeing one of your officers go down is probably one of the worst things a police chief can go through,” he said. “Those kinds of thoughts about the enormity of the job are going to be presented to him during the next few days.”
Citizen Staff Writer Alan Fischer contributed to this article.
• Age: 50
• Hired by TPD: 1980
• Education: Master’s of education, Northern Arizona University
• TPD history: Command experience includes investigative services bureau, administrative services bureau, field services bureau, support services bureau, West division, management information division, field support division, anti-narcotics squad, Midtown operations division, Office of Professional Standards, hostage negotiations.