LIVERMORE -- When Livermore Police Chief Steve Sweeney was hired on by the department in 1984, he made a vow to then-chief Mel Nelson during his interview.

"He said, 'If I give you this job, promise me you'll stay at least five years," Sweeney recalled. "I said, 'Chief, if you'll give me the job, I'll give you my career.' I never thought about leaving here."

Sweeney was true to his word. After nearly 30 years with the department, including the past five as its chief, Sweeney has called it quits. His last day will be March 29.

"It's just time, " Sweeney said. "I've been in the business a long time. I've always tried to give the city 100 percent, and I said if there was ever a time when I started slowing down, I would go."

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Moraga, Sweeney's interest in law enforcement was sparked by a teacher in his high school law class. He was hired on as a police cadet in Moraga in 1981, and after graduating from Cal State University-East Bay in Hayward, he landed a patrol officer job in Livermore, a place he quickly made his hometown. Rising through the ranks, Sweeney had his mentors, like his first sergeant Leonard Wicksten, and former Chief Nelson, who provided him with "fatherly" guidance. Nelson passed away in 2011.

Sweeney, 51, said he never sought out to be chief, but found enjoyment in public service and the challenge of the job.

"I get satisfaction out of helping other people," he said. "You can see the difference you make in other people's lives."

In recent years, as in most cities, Livermore police have had to do more with less, and Sweeney said he's proud of how his employees have handled cutbacks to funding and personnel. Last summer, the city made public safety a top priority, leaving some administrative positions vacant and shifting about $500,000 to the police. The adjustment enabled Livermore to hire seven new officers in January and restore the department's Drug and Gang Task Force. Three more officers will be added in July.

According to Livermore City Manager Marc Roberts, the department -- operating under a $26.7 million budget -- is in a "very healthy position" financially, in line with the city's overall fiscal outlook. Through partnering with outside agencies, schools and community groups, Roberts said, Sweeney is leaving a "great platform" for his successor.

"He's led the department through a particularly difficult time as we've dealt with shrinking budgets," Roberts said. "He's done a fabulous job."

Sweeney said the department appears to be turning the corner financially, and he feels fortunate to hand the keys over on a high note.

"The last few years have been stressful, trying to make it work with limited resources," Sweeney said. "I feel better leaving at a time when things are positive."

The city paid Sweeney a salary of $184,656 for his last year, Livermore Assistant City Manager Troy Brown said. Sweeney's pension will be paid by the California Public Employees' Retirement System and will be calculated at 3 percent per year of service, at his highest rate of pay.

The city is looking for an interim replacement for Sweeney and has begun the search, internally and externally, for a permanent chief. Moving forward, the department should consider bolstering management positions and continue to foster community relations, Sweeney said. During his tenure, Sweeney stressed accessibility to the public and expanded outreach programs such as the citizens' police academy and Neighborhood Watch. He also played a key role in the merging of the Livermore and Pleasanton SWAT teams.

According to Sweeney, community support has helped the city avoid a major crime wave. Property crime and traffic issues remain the most common calls for service, he said, and though gang activity is an issue, it's not as prevalent as some people believe. Being in charge of maintaining the city's quality of life, he said, has been an "honor."

"You witness a lot of tragedy," he explained. "But in this job, the good outweighs the bad .... When somebody is having the worst day of their life and you're able to turn it around for them, that's rewarding."

As for Sweeney's retirement plans, nothing's set in stone. He's staying in Livermore and looks forward to spending time with his wife and three teenage children, who have had to be supportive of his demanding work schedule.

"It's bittersweet," Sweeney said. "I'm just really proud of my career and the people I've gotten to know .... Leaving isn't easy, but it's the right time to do it."

Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.