Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters--a nationally recognized pioneer in community-oriented policing--is mulling over an offer to head Riverside's beleaguered Police Department, sources said Thursday.
Riverside city officials approached Walters on Wednesday with a package to lead a police agency that has faced charges of racism since white officers shot and killed a black motorist 18 months ago, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
The loss of Walters would be considered a major blow to Santa Ana's effort to reduce crime and gang violence in Orange County's largest city. Any move is also likely to ignite a debate about whether the city should have a Latino police chief.
Walters and Riverside police officials declined to comment. Though Santa Ana police officers and city officials said they knew nothing about the negotiations, many said they hope Walters will reject any offer made to him.
"He's done an outstanding job in this community," said Sgt. Mark Nichols, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Assn. "When they talk about the reduction in crime in Orange County, what's the No. 1 city that comes to mind? Santa Ana."
Riverside officials are wrapping up a six-month nationwide hunt for a new chief after former Chief Jerry Carroll resigned in the wake of the December 1998 shooting of Tyisha Miller.
Miller was killed by four Riverside police officers responding to a 911 call who found her unresponsive inside a locked vehicle with a gun in her lap. They said that when they broke the window to grab the gun, she reached for it, prompting them to open fire. She was struck 12 times.
Praise for Credentials
Ameal Moore, the only African American member of the Riverside City Council, said hiring an outsider is the only way for the city to recover from the Miller shooting.
"We need someone who has no involvement with this city and can come in with fresh eyes," Moore said. "We need to heal. And we need to reestablish a trust with the community."
Walters, he said, "comes with very impressive credentials. We had 30 applicants and he came out at the top of the stack."
The Riverside Police Department is smaller than Santa Ana's and has a smaller annual budget--$42 million compared with $72 million. Nevertheless, the chance to help reform the embattled agency and soothe community relations might prove tempting to Walters, who made an unsuccessful bid for Orange County sheriff two years ago.
"Riverside would be very tough. . . . But it would be a really good challenge," said Eileen Padberg, a political consultant who managed Walter's campaign for sheriff.
Walters took the helm at Santa Ana in December 1988--a time when the department was in turmoil and gang violence in the city was spiraling out of control.
At 44, the new chief was the youngest in the city's history and brought with him progressive ideas of policing. Most notably, he showed himself an ardent supporter for the "broken windows" theory, which asserts that allowing disorderly conduct in neighborhoods leads to flourishing crime down the road.
Forging relationships with other city agencies, the chief helped create diversionary programs for the city's youngsters while also cracking down on repeat offenders.
His vision has not been popular with everyone. In the early 1990s, Walters came under fire from advocates of the homeless, who decried a crackdown on the homeless near the civic center.
But the soft-spoken chief has won praise amid an unprecedented drop in crime, with serious offenses falling by nearly half since he took over and murders plunging by more than 70%.
That success has brought with it many accolades, including a presidential award in 1993 for community oriented policing and an FBI award last year for leadership.
If Walters accepts the Riverside job, discussion about a successor is likely to focus on whether a Latino should head the county's second largest law enforcement agency.
With Santa Ana serving a population about 70% Latino, there probably will be an effort to include a Latino among the finalists, community activists say.
"It's a factor to look at," said Zeke Hernandez, of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Times staff writer Scott Gold contributed to this story.