SIERRA MADRE — The last time Sierra Madre sought a police chief was in 1976. But when the position opened up again last month, there was no rush to apply for what could be called one of the safest law-enforcement management jobs available.
Last year, the quiet enclave of 10,800 residents, nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, boasted the lowest crime rate in the San Gabriel Valley and was ranked the 21st safest of 485 cities in California. There were no murders reported last year.
But the job of supervising the police force's 20 employees pays only $58,704 annually, plus benefits. Although the salary is 12.5% higher than what recently retired Chief I.E. (Bill) Betts earned after 17 years in the post, the new boss would be the lowest-paid police chief in the valley, far behind San Marino Chief Frank Wills, who, at $74,040 a year, is the next lowest-paid chief.
"That is a basic rookie's pay for (Los Angeles County) sheriff's deputies and (Los Angeles Police Department) officers (with overtime)," John Thurman, interim Sierra Madre police chief, said of the city's offering for its top law enforcement post. "The officers and sergeants (here) make more money than that (with overtime)."
"It's a nice job to retire to," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Lt. John Dredd, who is not an applicant.
Despite what could amount to a pay cut for them, at least two Sierra Madre police sergeants are interested in the chief's job.
"I am not going to be a millionaire at the job," said one, Sgt. Chris Christensen, a 28-year veteran of the department. But he added: "I would take great pride in the job."
And Sgt. Larry Lutzow, who joined the department 23 years ago, said, "It's been my career goal to become the chief of police."
After four weeks, the search for a new chief has attracted 30 applicants from as far away as Arizona, Nevada and Washington state, said Sean J. Joyce, acting city administrator. By contrast, when San Marino recently sought a new chief, 60 people applied in the first three weeks, said Keith R. Till, San Marino's city manager.
The highest-ranking officer among the Sierra Madre pool is a lieutenant from the Seattle Police Department who has been serving as acting police chief for three years for different cities in that area, Thurman said.
Mayor Clem L. Bartolai acknowledged that the salary may discourage officers from large agencies from applying because they would have to take a pay cut. But he said Sierra Madre does not have the money to pay more.
"If there were more money available, we would consider changing salaries in a few areas," Bartolai said. "At this point, it is prohibited."
"You are not going to get lieutenants from Los Angeles Police Department to quit a $6,000-a-month job. It's a foolish option to make," said Sgt. Gerald Skinner, a 16-year veteran of the Sierra Madre department.
LAPD lieutenants, depending on length of service and other factors, earn from $61,000 to $72,500.
Skinner said he is weighing his options, but probably will not apply for the chief's job, even though it is a logical steppingstone.
"I am happy with what I am doing now," said the sergeant, who earns $50,640 a year without overtime pay. "The extra (straight salary) money is not worth the headache. I am not sure I would enjoy the political aspect of the job."
Lutzow, in discussing his work in Sierra Madre, said, "If money was an incentive to stay with the department, most officers would have left after a few years. We stay because we like the people and we like working in this community. Besides arresting people, here we have time to do a little extra."
Lutzow recalled the time he received a call from a resident who said that her dog had crawled into a deep hole in her back yard that was home to her pet tortoise. Her tortoise climbed in after the dog and refused to budge. Lutzow had to dig the hole bigger to free both animals.
As chief, Lutzow said he would seek to provide portable police radios to some residents so that they could be extra eyes and ears for police while jogging or walking their dogs.
Christensen, 55, who has been with the department 28 years, said he will apply, even though he is eligible for retirement. "The money isn't everything . . . I want to go out as the highest-ranking officer."
Christensen said that if he becomes chief, he would try to establish stronger ties with residents by having officers participate in programs to increase awareness and understanding between his agency and the community.
Applications for the job will be accepted until Nov. 12.