SAN JOSE -- A couple of days after a deadly shooting there, San Jose police Chief Larry Esquivel walked along Loma Verde Drive.

Clad in his dress blues and accompanied by Lt. Rob Millard, he chatted with residents, handed out police stickers to kids in the West San Jose neighborhood, and reflexively pointed out blight such as discarded mattresses he wanted to bring to the city's attention.

It's been about a quarter of a century since Esquivel, who recently became the city's permanent chief after serving about a year in the interim position, worked as a patrol officer. But Esquivel said he aims to walk a beat somewhere in the city once a week, and he has been known to jump spontaneously into the shotgun seat of a patrol car and ride along with a police trainee.

"I'm more of a cop who has to be an administrator than the other way around," he said.

Times are about as tough as they've ever been for the San Jose Police Department, a storied agency that a decade ago regularly claimed credit for maintaining the safest large city in the country. Soured by an erosion of pay and benefits, officers have left in droves, and there has been only modest relief.

But Esquivel's no-nonsense attitude, empathy for street cops and deep roots in the community might be exactly what the embattled force needs, according to officers and city officials.

San Jose's top cop is fiercely loyal, whether to the city where he grew up or to former Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr., a childhood friend Esquivel stands by even as Shirakawa serves a yearlong sentence for corruption and gambling with public funds.

That same loyalty may explain why he took on the challenge of the chief's job when he could easily retire.

Longtime colleagues joke that Esquivel is an ageless wonder whose look -- crew cut and all -- hasn't changed since he joined the force in 1986. What also hasn't changed, they say, is his methodical, detail-oriented approach, which they described as reassuring in an environment of uncertainty.

"He's like me: pretty boring. But it's absolutely what we need," said Lt. Danny Acosta, a 29-year veteran and contemporary of the chief. "We know what to expect. That stability's key. It's one less thing an officer has to worry about, and lets us stay more focused on the job."

Esquivel, 52, grew up the oldest child in a single-parent household in working-class East San Jose, near 24th and William streets, as gritty a neighborhood then as it is now. He became a father before he graduated from Yerba Buena High School, where he excelled in football, basketball and wrestling. Feeling the urgency that comes with supporting a young family, he became a carpenter's apprentice.

"I graduated on Thursday and had a job on Monday," he said.

He worked in construction for several years, but a childhood dream of police work always hovered in his mind, and he joined the police academy in 1986.

Since his first day on the force -- when recruits were put on the street almost immediately -- he has been known for an unwavering work ethic, which he said was instilled in part from his time as a carpenter.

"I always had to have that energy," Esquivel said. "You had to work hard or there would be no work for you."

In 28 years, his resume has come to include undercover narcotics detective, robbery unit supervisor, team leader on the MERGE (SWAT) unit, commander of the Internal Affairs division, and deputy chief overseeing patrol. Along the way he earned a degree in criminal justice from San Jose State University.

Esquivel was one of four MERGE officers involved in a 1993 gunbattle while serving a drug warrant at an apartment near Leigh Avenue in which they shot and killed a man out on bail in an earlier fatal shooting. The suspect narrowly missed hitting the officers, who included Dave Hober, now a deputy chief.

Esquivel said it was one of many instances that conveyed the emotional weight of the job, and it's a sensitivity that has stayed with him. He has made a point to visit the families of every homicide victim in the city.

"Whatever the circumstances, they were a member of the community," Esquivel said. "It's about treating them as human beings."

Additional touches, like his insistence on walking a beat, routinely dropping in on briefings and often suiting up in full uniform, don't go unnoticed by officers.

"It means something to them," Millard said. "I've worked under six chiefs, and he's the only one who gets out here like this."

When former Chief Chris Moore stepped down in January 2013, Esquivel was named interim chief as the city searched for a permanent replacement. But the search sputtered and after several months of dormancy, it became apparent that city leaders didn't have the appetite for another go.

Meanwhile, Esquivel wasn't content to just be a caretaker interim chief.

Consider the last week of May, when there were six homicides in the space of seven days. He ordered dozens of extra cops on the streets to crack down on gang hot spots. When that didn't work, Esquivel called his commanders in on a Saturday to alter the strategy. Less than two weeks later the department unveiled a three-pronged gang suppression plan. The frequency of homicides and gang violence tapered off for the last half of the year.

Esquivel officially became police chief in December, when the City Council signed off on a recommendation from then-City Manager Debra Figone.

"Having to run the department in difficult times, he proved he can do the job," Mayor Chuck Reed said.

There have been some bumps for Esquivel. In 2012, when he was deputy chief, he repaid the county for meals Shirakawa improperly charged with a county credit card. The former supervisor is a close friend, and when asked about his relationship to Shirakawa, Esquivel responded with a brief written statement:

"I have many friends I have known for a long time and George happens to be one of them. His current situation is unfortunate for him and extremely unfortunate for the community."

More recently there was a controversy surrounding a change in how the department classified gang crime, which raised questions about the legitimacy of a reported drop in those incidents in 2013.

Local civil rights groups also criticized him when, just days into his interim tenure, he suspended a policy signed by the outgoing Moore to vastly expand the in-field documentation of police stops with the aim of answering racial-profiling allegations. Esquivel said he did it after hearing officers complain the process was so cumbersome it risked dissuading them from making all but the most major stops. The policy has since been implemented after some revision, which even policy backers now see was necessary.

"He was wise to roll this out in a way where officers can appreciate what it's about," said LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge and the city's independent police auditor.

"We don't agree on everything, but there's never a second of disagreeability," she said.

And for the most part, Esquivel has avoided much of the community's ire about understaffing. The police union, which once considered a "no confidence" vote in Moore because of a perceived lack of advocacy at City Hall, has largely refrained from criticizing Esquivel in favor of turning its vitriol toward the mayor and the budget measures that slashed police pay to retain jobs.

"I hope people don't blame the chief," Reed said. "I'm responsible. I happen to think it was the right decision, but it's not the chief's decision."

It's all been a dizzying change of pace for a man who said he never had chiefly aspirations. After almost three decades on the force, Esquivel admits that retirement is near, but he's not slowing down. An astonishing example of that surfaced last year, when he became a national weightlifting record holder among police and firefighters in his age range by dead-lifting more than 418 pounds.

"I know I could have retired now. But I grew up in this department, and this is the most challenging time I've seen," Esquivel said. "I can stay a little bit longer, develop the other executive staff. Whatever I can do to better the department."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.

LARRY ESQUIVEL
Title: SJPD chief
Experience: 28-year department veteran
Age: 52
Residence: Gilroy
Hometown: San Jose
Personal: Married with three adult children
Education: Bachelor's in criminal justice, San Jose State University