WALNUT CREEK -- In the two months police Chief Tom Chaplin has been on the job, he has constantly been asked by residents, city officials and fellow officers when the city's motorcycle traffic team will be back on the streets.
It weighs on his mind, and he is eager to fill officer positions.
"My No. 1 priority is filling this department back up with the right people," Chaplin said recently from his new office on the second floor of City Hall. "I will not fully stand-up the motor team until I know they won't have to sit down again."
Chaplin, having worked most recently in Citrus Heights, became chief in July after Joel Bryden retired. And the shortage of officers he speaks of is an inherited problem, from city belt-tightening that froze officer positions and a department plagued by leaves, injuries and retirements.
There are currently 71 officers in Walnut Creek and four more in training to become full-fledged officers, likely by early next year. And soon, the department will be looking to hire officers with experience in other departments.
Chaplin, a 23-year law enforcement veteran, said the Walnut Creek Police Department has a great reputation and he plans to find officers who are highly educated, customer service-oriented and dedicated. He has been given the OK to overhire, to fill as many as 81 positions, to prepare for any unforeseen leaves and likely retirements. But the process of hiring new police officers takes time.
"The hiring landscape has changed, and competition is huge," he said.
More officers will mean not just the return of motorcycle officers, which can help calm traffic and reduce speeds, but also of school resource officers, Chaplin said. He is eager for police to get back into schools because it helps prevent crime, reaching kids before they make bad choices, he said.
But rather than jumping in and making a lot of changes, Chaplin is meeting with every employee of the Police Department one-on-one and asking their opinions.
"It's important that people have a voice and say in how the department is run," he said.
Chaplin doesn't want to overpromise or underdeliver. What he has learned so far is that the employees take pride in their jobs and have a real care and concern for the community, he said.
Mayor Cindy Silva said that, even in this short amount of time, she has been impressed by the new chief.
"He has done an excellent job of reaching out and learning about not only the Police Department but the community as a whole," she said.
Chaplin had worked for the Citrus Heights Police Department since 2006, serving as a lieutenant and as commander for both its patrol services division and investigative services division. He helped establish that department's juvenile diversion and education program and its youth and family services unit. He has also worked for the state's Department of Justice and with the Sacramento Police Department.
The 44-year-old has been married to his wife, Julie, for 23 years; they have three children.
Chaplin has high hopes for Walnut Creek and wants his department to be a model for other agencies on how to do things right. He wants his department to be known as the best in the state. He already plans for this to be his last job in law enforcement: "What could be better?"
But he is not naive about his challenges. Chaplin takes the helm after a recent scandal that divided City Hall and city leaders. Walnut Creek police officers had to investigate fellow employees for potential state mandated reporting violations after discovering that a former employee at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts committed sex abuse against minors.
Chaplin says it's time for the city and the department to move on. He can help move the department forward, he believes, by making sure the focus is clear, he said.
"We need to recommit," he said. "At the end of the day, if someone calls us, they want us to show up. ... They don't care about any of the other stuff -- they care about feeling safe in the community. With times that are negative, you learn from them and move on."
He believes a new leader with new energy will be good for the department and improve morale.
"If we are at a low, then it's my job to make things better," he said.
A rallying focus for the department will be his plan to create a crime-reduction plan tailored specifically to Walnut Creek. Part of this entails all officers knowing what crimes have occurred and where, and using that knowledge when out on patrol. He also wants to examine things such as how officers' shifts are staffed.
City Manager Ken Nordhoff said he looks forward to Chaplin's crime-reduction plan.
"It allows the chief, working with his department, the highest and best use of the resources they have," said Nordhoff, who is impressed with Chaplin's overall attitude, saying his enthusiasm is "contagious."
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.