By Robert Haugh
Police Chief Pat Nikolai was sworn in at yesterday’s council meeting. Only a few people, including his wife Tedra, were in the room because of social distancing rules. The City Council and staff congratulated Nikolai and gave him bundt cake.
You had an unusual swearing-in because of COVID-19 social distancing rules. What did you do to celebrate?
We ended up having a quiet evening at home. (After I responded to about 75 text messages) I threw a couple of steaks on the grill and Tedra made some great veggies. We love wine, so we splurged and cracked open a very nice bottle of Cabernet from Napa. And for dessert, we had some of that delicious bundt cake!
Our sources at City Hall and in the police department tell us that you’ve actually been running things for a few months even though you weren’t formally sworn in. What major changes have you made so far?
I would say that there has not been a major decision made that I have not been involved in since the filing deadline passed and I was the only candidate. Since the outcome was inevitable, it did not make sense for me to simply sit on the sidelines until the swearing-in. But officially, Assistant Chief Dan Winter has been the face of the department, and he has been doing a great job. I can’t thank him enough for his help.
Some of the things we have done include increasing the size of our recruiting unit, standing up a training unit staffed with a sergeant and a training coordinator, and starting the process to bring drone technology online. Then the pandemic was upon us. Now many of our plans are on hold as we wait to see how the City’s finances hold up.
Under Chief Mike Sellers, department morale was low. How would you describe it now?
I can safely say that morale has never been higher. It is truly a joy to go to work every day with the men and women at the Santa Clara Police Department. But let me be candid. I have already made some decisions that have disappointed and angered some. However, I truly believe that every decision I have made has been for the betterment of the department, not any kind of personal gain.
What changes will we see in the department to deal with health issues and social distancing in the future?
We have made many internal changes to try and keep our employees healthy. We have a team of six working to make sure that we have the best PPE gear and practices in place to keep our frontline personnel safe. We just purchased a vehicle decontamination ozone generator, and we have established a complete decontamination procedure. We are lucky to have received numerous donations of masks from a wide variety of residents.
As we move forward, we are waiting just like everyone else to see what the new health orders are. We will continue to use education to gain voluntary compliance for any kind of social distancing violation. We have been able to obtain 100% compliance so far, and I would expect nothing to change. If the situation did warrant it, we could issue a citation. But as of now, that would be a last resort.
What major priorities will you be able to make happen between now and the end of the year?
That really depends on the budget situation. During this unprecedented crisis, the City finances are suffering tremendously. One of the projects that I hope will be able to start will be the drone project. We will start slowly and work out all the kinks. Eventually, I believe that it will be a valuable tool that will help us deter crime, increase officer safety, and become as important to the agency as helicopters are to bigger agencies at a fraction of the cost.
What do you want to do with your major accomplishments by the end of your first term in 2024 assuming you get re-elected in November 2020?
I like your assumption! First I want to continue hiring personnel. Due to the incredible amount of turnover, we have had over the last few years we are currently down 16 sworn personnel at all ranks. And we have at least six more retiring at the end of this year. And that is just sworn personnel. We are down in our non-sworn ranks as well.
But assuming that the economy rebounds quickly (crossing our fingers) we should be able to get up to full staffing rapidly. I want to make sure that the traffic unit focuses on school zones and other hot spots in the city. Of course, that will require schools to start up again! I want to expand the drone program to ensure that there is enough coverage to provide protection whenever and wherever it is needed. I also want to expand our investigations division to ensure that every crime that has a lead can be investigated fully. I plan to expand our training unit so that we can ensure we have the best-trained agency in the state.
And most importantly, I want to keep listening to the women and men of the department. They have so many great ideas that have been stifled before. I will make sure to always listen with an open mind.