FREMONT -- When Craig Steckler was a young boy in Santa Ana in the mid-1950s, he and his buddies befriended a policeman who said he loved helping people, especially those defenseless against crime. Steckler, then a fourth-grader, idolized the good-natured lawman.

"From that age forward, I knew I wanted to be a cop and give back to the community," he said. Steckler lived his boyhood dream, starting as a San Clemente officer in 1968 and becoming Fremont's chief of police in 1992. But after more than four decades in law enforcement, Steckler -- now 68 -- said it's time to call it quits. Sunday will be his last official day as chief. "I love this profession, but 45 years is long enough," he said.

Steckler said his passion for police work never wavered, which explains why he stayed on the job nearly 20 years after he was eligible for retirement. He is past president of the California Police Chiefs Association and currently president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a 119-year-old organization representing 22,000 police chiefs in 102 countries worldwide.

Those high-profile positions have brought prestige to Fremont, former Fremont Mayor Gus Morrison said. NBC's "Meet the Press" program and national newspapers last week quoted Steckler, who criticized the National Rifle Association's recent call to place armed officers at schools in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., mass killing.


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"He's a leader in his industry, and that reflects well on us," Morrison said.

Union City police Chief Brian Foley, completing his first year as chief, said Steckler has been something of a mentor to him.

"He's been called 'the Godfather of Bay Area law enforcement' because he's such a wealth of knowledge," Foley said. "To be able to bounce ideas off of him has been invaluable for me."

After a stint as Piedmont's chief from 1980-86, Steckler joined Fremont police as deputy chief, then became the city's top cop six years later. During his 20-year tenure, he has guided the department through times good and bad. Frequent dips in the economy posed major challenges, such as the dot-com bust in 2001 and the severe economic downturn that began in 2008. Those years forced Fremont police to make painful cuts. The department has slashed the number of authorized officers from 212 in 2003 to about 180 today, Steckler said. Fremont's population is about 217,000.

That leaves the department with one of the nation's lowest officer-to-resident ratios for cities of Fremont's size, he said. "But we didn't go into the community and say 'woe is me,'" he said. "The community has to partner with law enforcement, and we did that joint effort together."

Steckler also immersed himself in the Tri-City area. He is a 26-year resident of Fremont, where his wife, Casey, runs an antique shop. Steckler has served on the Washington Township Hospital Advisory Board; the board of directors for Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments; and been president of Niles Rotary Club and the Salvation Army Advisory Board.

As chief, some of his choices proved unpopular, such as his decision in 2005 to stop responding to burglar alarms. The "verified alarm policy," still in effect, calls for police officers to not respond to a burglar alarm until after the alarm company verifies it. Steckler said he instituted the policy after more than 99 percent of the roughly 8,000 burglar alarm calls in 2004 turned out to be false.

Critics said the policy was an invitation to criminals to target the city. But Steckler said it freed up officers to handle more urgent calls instead of "running around doing alarm calls."

According to FBI crime statistics, Fremont had 1,009 burglaries in 2005, 1,324 in 2006 and 1,292 in 2007. Last year, the city had more than 1,300 burglaries, Steckler said. He said those statistics have fluctuated naturally over his 26 years in Fremont and continued to do so after the policy began.

"As (President Harry) Truman said, the buck stopped at my desk," he said. "Somebody had to make those tough decisions."

After Sunday, Steckler will work as a special assistant for Fremont police during a four-month transitional period, during which he will earn $30 per hour. He expects to work as many as 15 hours per week and will report to Capt. Richard Lucero, who has been appointed interim chief.

"I could stay around another five years, but my wife deserves a little of my time," Steckler said. "All good things come to an end."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.