Gesell, who spent 20 years on the force in Scottsdale, Ariz., before serving as interim police chief in Atascadero last year, was sworn in as San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) chief on Jan. 17.
Mustang Daily sat down with the new chief to talk about his first week, job experience and vision for the city.
Mustang Daily (MD): I was reading about how being police chief was a lifelong dream for you. What exactly attracts you to police chief?
Stephen Gesell (SG): Well, it wasn’t that police chief was the dream; it was the police chief here, in San Luis — I was raised in San Luis.
My dad at that time was the airport manager here in the county, so — the year that I graduated high school — he was hired by Arizona State to be a professor. I stayed, and he and my stepmother went. He started there, so in that year that I went to Cuesta. Essentially, the benefits that he had to bring me to ASU and go to a state school at very little cost, I couldn’t turn it down, so that’s why I left.
MD: How is working in San Luis Obispo as police chief different from interim police chief in Atascadero?
SG: Well, the city — obviously, every city’s got its own dynamics.
MD: What are the challenges you’ve faced so far on the job?
SG: As challenges go, the challenges of policing in this city, certainly the crime rate, we’re blessed.
The crime rate is, in relative terms as far as violent crime rate, very low. I always look at what our role is as a police department particularly for this city and what an honor it is to be among the principal guardians of the quality of life that we enjoy here, because it’s world renowned, as Oprah will tell you. But just to be part of that, and the police certainly, we’re not the only ones protecting the quality of life. It extends far beyond the police department, and certainly we can’t do it alone. So those challenges mainly hinge on relationship building, and maintaining and sustaining those positive relationships internally and externally within the city and in the community.
MD: Bill Watton’s retiring. Is there anything you want to see in a new University Police Department chief? Or anyone in particular?
SG: From my perspective the relationship that San Luis PD has with Cal Poly PD is obviously a very important one, and we believe that it’s a phenomenal working relationship between the two departments that I certainly intend to foster, so to answer that question, I would hope it’s someone that values the relationship with our PD.
MD: Something people mentioned when talking about why you were selected was a vision for the future. Are there any really particular concrete goals you have? Directions you want to take San Luis Obispo?
SG: Within 12 months, my objective right now is to produce a five-year strategic plan for the police. In the summertime we’ll start to build the draft for that strategic plan, and we’ll kick start it sometime in the summer. Ideally, toward the latter part of the year, I hope to involve other stakeholders outside the department which would obviously include Cal Poly, student representatives, community representatives, so everyone really has a say and a voice in what direction they think San Luis PD should go. That will be our roadmap for the next five years.
MD: I also wanted to ask, just during your first week, what are some moments that stand out to you as having been the most rewarding?
SG: I think hands down it’s the reception that I’ve received, both from the police department personnel and community. I mean just absolutely humbling. They welcomed me with open arms.
Gessell was one of 60 applicants for the SLOPD chief position. According to the selection committee, his local history and growing up in San Luis Obispo made his application stand out.