BERKELEY -- Mitch Celaya had never seen the likes of the Bubble Lady, the Naked Man or even Hare Krishnas when he reported for duty at UC Berkeley 30 years ago.

Celaya was only 22, the son of prune and walnut farmers who lived in a trailer on their employer's rural Yuba City property. Growing up, he took a bus 20 minutes to the nearest school.

Living out in the country, things were simple. He wrestled for his high school team, hung out with his brothers and sister and watched television.

"Adam-12," "Dragnet," "Starsky and Hutch," and "The Mod Squad" were his favorites. The police dramas were more than just entertainment. They showed him a life he aspired to have.

Mitch Celaya, chief of police, UC Berkeley Police Department. (Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Police Department.
Mitch Celaya, chief of police, UC Berkeley Police Department. (Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Police Department.

"As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a police officer," said Celaya, the 52-year-old police chief at UC Berkeley who retires this month after 30 years as a Cal cop and the last four years as chief. "I realized early on that as much as farming is an honorable (job), it's hard work. And it wasn't something I wanted to do."

At Yuba City High School he enrolled in an occupational training program that gave him a glimpse of what police work would be like and a chance to fire a gun at a shooting range. He was hooked, so he headed to Butte College in Oroville and earned an associate degree in administration of justice.

He graduated from the police academy in 1982. A classmate had been hired at Cal, and Celaya applied to join the force.


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"Here was this county kid who came to the big city and every day at noon time the Hare Krishnas were dancing and the Bubble Lady was blowing bubbles and (street performer) Stoney Burke would be screaming his rhetoric," he recalled. "Then came then X-plicit Players (who perform naked) and the naked people. I was going, 'Wow, we're not in Yuba City anymore.'"

Celaya's last day at UC Berkeley is Dec. 30, but he won't be leaving police work for good. He's been named chief of the Calistoga Police Department and will oversee nine sworn police officers and six other department employees in the Napa Valley town of 5,200.

"For me, it couldn't be more different than Berkeley," Celaya said. "I wasn't looking to do the same thing."

At Cal, Celaya oversaw an operating budget of $13.5 million, and managed roughly 130 police department employees, including 70 sworn officers, who patrol the sprawling campus and other affiliated areas, which at peak times holds about 38,000 students and staff, the equivalent of a small city.

Celaya, a Fairfield resident, knows the new Calistoga job will be less demanding, freeing time to spend with his wife and four children, who are between the ages of 4 and 23.

A nationwide search will begin immediately for his replacement. Capt. Margo Bennett will serve as acting chief until a new chief is hired.

Celaya, who made $165,000 a year as chief, said he stayed at Cal for three decades, not because he didn't have offers from other departments, but for two reasons. "I came from a very traditional background, where loyalty was how you grew up," he said.

There were also some perks, like the time he was backstage with musician Paul McCartney during a show at Memorial Stadium and the time he helped protect the Dalai Lama while the spiritual leader gave a commencement speech.

Berkeley has had its share of tensions over the years, and Celaya has seen his share of action.

In 2006, the city and two outside groups sued the university to try to stop construction of an athletic training center next to Memorial Stadium and in a grove of oak trees. For nearly two years, dozens of people lived in the trees to try and stop the plan. Both UC and city police were often involved when problems erupted at the tree sit.

Celaya was assistant chief during the tree sit and often the police spokesman for the university. He also worked regularly with Berkeley police.

"(He) has consistently been very approachable, respectful and kind regardless of his rise in rank or the difference in our respectful ranks over the many years I have known him," said Berkeley Police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, who has held many jobs during her years on the job.

"Regardless of being the chief of police, and (from) another agency, he has always taken the time to talk, or lighten a moment with a smile or laughter when appropriate," she said.

She is not alone in her praise. Celaya has received numerous service awards, including the UC systemwide Meritorious Service Award for his response to the August 1992 assassination attempt on former Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien by 20-year-old Rosebud Denovo, who broke into the chancellor's on-campus residence. After Tien and his wife were escorted to safety, Oakland police shot and killed Denovo when she went at them with a machete.

Celaya has also spearheaded the police response during many of the protests on campus in recent years -- including protests over tuition hikes and, more recently, an Occupy protest that turned violent after students pitched tents on Sproul Plaza.

In that incident UC police -- and Celaya -- were criticized for using batons on students to break up the Occupy Cal camp. A review of the Nov. 9, 2011, incident faulted Celaya, saying he had "denied approval of the use of (pepper) spray" on the students through the chain of command.

Celaya backed his decision, saying there are pros and cons to using pepper spray to control unruly crowds. The biggest problem is cross contamination, because it spreads quickly through the air and doesn't allow officers to target only the person not cooperating with police.

"The thing that gets me is we handle a lot of rallies, protests and demonstrations every year, and I think we do a pretty darn good job," he said. "Sometimes things don't go the way we want."

A lengthy report also criticized the department's response to a Nov. 20, 2009, Wheeler Hall occupation that ended in dozens of arrests and police beatings.

The university's Police Review Board criticized UC Berkeley leaders for being unprepared for civil disobedience. The board also found that budget cuts had thinned the UC Police Department to the point where officers had little leadership as they first responded to the students' daylong occupation of Wheeler Hall early in the morning. The first officer to respond made the "unwise" decision to threaten to use pepper spray on the protesters, the panel said.

Celaya admitted that his officers should have dealt with the demonstration better. "Wheeler got ahead of us," he said in a recent interview. "We couldn't catch up."

Reach Kristin J. Bender at kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender.