Calif. Chief Takes Center Stage During Tragic Events

April 10, 2012
Oakland's police chief has had three baptisms by fire in three years, far more than some chiefs see in an entire career.

OAKLAND -- Howard Jordan was three weeks into his first stint as interim Oakland police chief on March 21, 2009 when four officers were fatally shot by a parolee who was later killed by SWAT members.

He was two weeks into in his second stint as interim chief on Oct. 25, 2011 when police cleared hundreds of Occupy Oakland protesters near City Hall in a violent, tear gas-filled confrontation that resulted in arrests, the severe head injury of a former Marine, and hundreds of complaints about excessive police force.

Last week, just two months after Jordan was named permanent chief, a disgruntled former nursing student went to a private university in East Oakland, shooting seven people to death and wounding three in the largest mass killing in city history.

Three baptisms by fire in three years is far more than some chiefs see in an entire career. Each gained worldwide news coverage and made Jordan the city's international face in media spotlights, a role many think he handles quite well.

Sgt. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said his parents have watched Jordan on television in their home in Dublin, Ireland.

"How many chiefs anywhere have to deal with the tragedies and the challenges like he has? Oakland is probably one of the most challenging cities in America to police. He does a good job in getting out the information. It has to be stressful."

After Monday's tragedy, Jordan awoke early Tuesday to do live interviews on CNN, Fox News, and Good Morning America starting at 3 a.m.

Highly-respected retired Oakland Chief George T. Hart led the department when Jordan began his career. Hart, who retired in 1992 after a 37-year career, the last 19 as chief, has followed Jordan's career since.

"He's been readily available in the public eye confronting the issues head on," Hart said. "It's been very positive. I'm very impressed. He has represented the city and the department very well."

The usually low-key Jordan said that as "a big city police chief you have to be prepared at any time. You never expect that kind of recognition but I am not surprised. You have to demonstrate strong leadership skills during these difficult times. I wouldn't change anything. It's challenging, but rewarding, too."

Jordan, 47, said he has not taken any classes that teach chiefs how to deal with media. He relies instead on his own experiences, knowledge, skills and abilities gained from his 24 years of on the job training as well as talking to other chiefs he respects. He believes he has gotten better as the department's voice, but concedes that "unfortunately, that is also partly because of the frequency of the occurrences," not just high-profile cases but other cases and issues.

Jordan said the public has a right to know what is going on and receive accurate information. But that is not always possible, especially when it comes to discussing personnel issues where state law prohibits the release of certain information or if cases are unsolved.

"I know (reporters) want to report information to the public, but there is a delicate balance between what they want to write and what I can talk about."

Jordan commands a chronically understaffed department of about 650 police officers, almost 180 less than it had two years ago, while trying to deal with the city's high homicide rate and other violent crimes.

He said he comes to work with a set schedule and has goals to meet. When tragic events such as the four officers being killed, clashes with Occupy protesters and the school shooting happen there is minimal impact on the day-to-day operations of the department because he is confident in his staff and senior commanders to ensure the city's public safety needs are met.

Even though his media presence has increasingly thrust him into the spotlight, Jordan insists he is not looking for personal recognition. "That's not what my focus is. I understand my role as a member of the city team. My role is to police the city. It's not about one person."

City Administrator Deanna J. Santana, who appointed Jordan chief, said that he "shows he has command."

"He certainly is well-trained and knows how to deal with critical incidents," she said. "We have formed a strong partnership based on shared leadership priorities, performance expectation and overall accountability. I am impressed by (Jordan's) ability to stay calm under very challenging circumstances."

Staff writer Matt Artz contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 Contra Costa NewspapersAll Rights Reserved

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