BURLINGAME — Police Chief Jack Van Etten announced Monday he will retire in December after serving 5½ years as the city's ninth police chief.

As it turns out, he may be the last.

Van Etten, 57, said he will step down after serving 36 years with the department, starting as an officer and rising through the ranks before being sworn in as chief in May 2004. He said he wants to spend more time with his family and may work part-time as a private investigator.

City Manager Jim Nantell said the city will not launch a search to replace him until officials determine whether the city's Police Department will merge with departments from nearby cities to save money. City leaders are discussing whether to create a three-city police department with Millbrae and San Mateo or form a two-city consolidation with Hillsborough.

Nantell said he hopes the City Council will hire a consultant within the next few months to research the mergers, specifically to determine the costs and service levels of any potential consolidation. The cities involved would then recruit together for a shared chief. If the merger idea collapses, Burlingame officials would launch a search to simply replace Van Etten, Nantell said.

For his part, Van Etten said the issue of joint police operations needs to be investigated. He remembers forecasting as a college student in the early 1970s that various San Mateo County police departments would merge before the end of his career.

And while he did not see much consolidation, Van Etten experienced just about everything a Peninsula police officer could see.

Van Etten helped solve a homicide at the Burlingame Avenue train station in 1986, implemented watch programs for neighborhoods, business and banks and recently saw his sworn staff downsized by 24 percent. He was also a commander during the successful investigation of a "senseless" homicide at a Wells Fargo branch in 2002, founded citizens academies, helped lead dozens of community associations and created the county's Special Olympics law enforcement torch run.

But Van Etten said the train station slaying stood out as his career's defining moment. On March 26, 1986, ticket agent George Grant was found lying in a pool of his own blood behind the ticket counter in what Van Etten described as a "whodunit" killing. Serving as detective sergeant, he investigated the case for months, interviewing Grant's wife and daughter and following other leads, and eventually arrested Grant's killer, Cleveland Scott.

Van Etten, who has a teaching credential, said he may get into teaching or work with groups that serve the less fortunate. A family member and a friend have offered him a part-time job at a local private investigator firm. The Burlingame resident also wants to travel and spend time with his wife, daughter, father, and dog, Rex.

"There's a lot more in my life that I want to do," he said.

Staff writer Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation issues. Reach him at 650-348-4324.