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.’”