Incoming chief looks forward to new challenges

2012-11-21T00:00:00Z Incoming chief looks forward to new challengesSean Scully Napa Valley Register
November 21, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Calistoga’s new police chief says he’s looking forward to taking over a small department, with its ground-level contact with officers and community members, after years at a larger department.

“I am a very back-to-basics kind of guy,” said Mitch Celaya, the retiring chief of the University of California at Berkeley police department, who is set to take over in Calistoga on Jan. 1. “I want to begin in setting expectations, setting a direction for the city to go in … really making the police department part of the community.”

Celaya has spent his entire 30-year career with the UC Berkeley police department, rising from a patrol officer to chief in 2009.

The experience, he said this week, has given him skills in dealing with a large, diverse and ever-shifting population of students, staff and locals in one of California’s quirkiest cities.

His immediate goal in Calistoga, he said, will be to figure out what the department and city need and to set goals for the first year. One clear goal, he said, will be to get officers out into the community.

“There is really no reason why we shouldn’t know every business owner in town,” he said. In larger cities, that might be difficult, but “in a smaller place like Calistoga, it is achievable.”

He also said he hoped to forge a bond with the city’s Latino community, which is nearly half the total population. Celaya is himself Latino, raised by a migrant working family outside Yuba City.

He does not, however, speak Spanish, a lack he hopes to correct once he takes over in Calistoga.

“That’s probably one of the things I feel bad about,” he said.

Celaya, 51, was named Calistoga’s new chief earlier this month, replacing longtime Chief Jonathan Mills, who stepped down in the spring to take the vacant position of lieutenant with the department.

City Manager Richard Spitler pushed the change, saying he wanted stronger leadership. He brought in Interim Chief Susan Jones, the retired Healdsburg chief, to help recruit and review more than a dozen applicants for the top job.

Currently, Celaya manages a department of 64 officers, 45 staff and 60 student volunteers. He has generally earned favorable reviews for his career at UC Berkeley, including a citation for his handling of a late-night assassination attempt on then-Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien in 1992.

The only major controversy has been his department’s handling of the 2011 Occupy movement protests, with some critics saying his officers were too quick to resort to batons to clear out slow-moving protesters.

Celaya said this week that it would be a mistake to focus too much on controversies over a small number of protests on a campus that is famous for its activist student culture. Most protests in his 30 years, he said, have been resolved peacefully, mostly by careful contact and negotiation with leaders in the crowds.

The Occupy protests, however, proved to be difficult to deal with, he said, since it was largely a leaderless movement with few easy points of contact with whom to negotiate a peaceful solution.

Celaya said he was drawn to Calistoga for a variety of reasons, starting with the beauty and quiet of the town.

It is also close to his current home in Fairfield, so he doesn’t have to uproot his wife and four children, who range from 4 to 23 years old. The family may eventually move to Calistoga, he said, but they are particularly reluctant at the moment to uproot his 16-year-old son, who just started his senior year in high school.

Celaya said he will miss his professional home in Berkeley, but he is looking forward to making his mark on Calistoga.

“I love this place [Berkeley]; it has been a very difficult decision” to retire, he said. “But sometimes you wake up and say ‘It’s time for a change.’”

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(4) Comments

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    BRGMGB - November 24, 2012 4:08 pm
    "Celaya said he was drawn to Calistoga for a variety of reasons, starting with the beauty and quiet of the town."

    I think he has the wrong town if he thinks Calistoga is quiet. Being a new hire at the mercy of the merchant-friendly politicians, he will have no political power to change city policy of not citing loud motorcycles. The town is invaded by bikers every weekend and all summer long who are riding bikes without mufflers or equipped with illegal exhaust systems. The city council and the city manager are so beholden to business interests that I'm sure Mr. Celaya's marching orders are, "We expect no citations to be issued for illegally loud motorcycles. If any of Calistoga's police officers should do this, you may need to find other employment."
  2. Andy Ford
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    Andy Ford - November 27, 2012 11:38 am
    I don't know what useful purpose is served by trying to judge the new police chief before apparently even speaking to him. It could be that he'll take quality of life issues seriously and may instruct his officers to stop loud motorcycles.
    Those who want to end the abusive behavior of riding loud should form a group that will have bills sponsored in the legislature that will be effective and easy to enforce.
    There are CALM (Citizens Against Loud Motorcycles) groups in several states and certainly, California could benefit from one.
  3. Ephemerol
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    Ephemerol - December 01, 2012 3:31 am
    Chief Celaya, Calistoga would benefit *greatly* from officer foot patrols especially at night. The city has multiple problems surrounding the issues of alcohol consumption, intimidation and assault by the usual young suspects downtown as it's not safe anymore to just walk up to say the gas station for a treat later after ten. Too many gang-members and wannabes with a real new nasty attitude that I suspect is meth driven as per all of the $$ involved. Having said that it's really fairly easy and straight forward e.g. domestic violence, alcoholism, burglary and all of the crazy wild things that one could ever imagine in such a small town. I highly suspect your Spanish will arrive in no time at all here. Any real police officer's *greatest* strength is the ability to talk, listen, laugh and just make friends and take people's concerns and fears seriously. Good luck.
    Report Abuse
    BRGMGB - December 01, 2012 12:22 pm
    In response to Andy's comment above:

    I apologize if I sounded too strident about the subject of the city's "no-citation" policy for loud motorcycles. I, and others who share this concern, have met with police, politicians and press and nothing changes regarding the noise invasion in this area. In fact, I have been told by the city manager that no citations would be issued for this infraction as long as he holds that position.

    What I was trying to say is that I don't know if a police chief will have the independence from political pressure to do what is right when he is new to the job.
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