CALIFORNIA CITY — California City Police Chief Jon Walker was sworn in a little over a year ago, taking over a small police department responsible for covering the state’s third-largest city by land size.
After more than 30 years as a law enforcement officer, including the Los Angeles Police Department, he acknowledged there are some differences. Walker retired from the Los Angeles Police Department.
“It has definitely been a learning experience to be able to come into a small department that doesn’t have all the resources of a big city,” Walker said in a Jan. 21 interview. “But it’s also been enlightening to see that regardless of that, my officers do a really good job.”
He added the difference between the LAPD and CCPD are “night and day.” Los Angeles Police Department employs hundreds of specialists from crime scene photographers to forensics.
“Our guys, they do it all,” Walker said of CCPD’s officers. “We don’t have any detectives, so they go to the scene and collect all the evidence, interview all the witnesses and potential suspects … they see the cases through from beginning to end. For me, that’s pretty impressive.”
Walker said his police force currently includes 13 sworn police officers, including himself. Walker said he contributes to the patrol duty, responding to calls.
“When we’re short or go down an officer, for safety I don’t want people out there by themselves, so if I have to I’ll come in,” Walker said.
CCPD also employs a special investigator, a retired sheriff’s deputy from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, to work on the city’s eight cold cases, some of which stretch back nearly 20 years.
“We’re getting close on several of them,” Walker said. One of the cases, involving Cal City resident Phillip Hammond, went from a missing persons case to a homicide after his remains were found on Nov. 17 by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies near Cantil. Hammond had been missing since July 4, 2017.
Walker said some of his goals and accomplishments in the year since he was sworn have included securing reliable equipment for his department, training for his officers and providing a “comfortable place to work.”
“I think I’m making great headway on that,” Walker said. Training, he said, has been difficult, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, he said he’s managed to ensure some repairs to the police station and setting up accommodations for some of his officers who have come in from out of town to work.
In terms of reliable equipment, Walker said some goals have been met, including four refurbished Crown Victoria police cruisers from the department’s mothball fleet. The refurbishment was approved by the city council in October after an order for two new SUV patrol vehicles was severely delayed.
Most of CCPD’s vehicles have racked up high milage but due to the lack of reliable alternatives, couldn’t take them out of rotation long enough to be serviced.
The first one rolled in back from the shop on Nov. 21, and Walker said he expects one to roll in every other week. On top of that, CCPD expects to take delivery of the new SUVs within a month or two.
The department will also be getting new body cameras for its officers to replace ones that have been severely outdates and lacking from IT support.
Walker called the body cameras a “must have” in modern policing.
“It’s a necessity,” Walker said. “We cannot move forward as a police department — I can’t imagine any police department in this nation moving forward — without body cams or dash cams or both. It’s the world we live in and we have to adapt.”
He noted this has been accomplished on a limited budget, even as Cal City had to tighten its belt across all departments.
“I had to make it work within that budget,” he said.
The police department is working to upgrade its communications gear to meet state standards.
“We’ve already briefed the city manager and city council on this, but the things we are asking for are not wants, they’re needs,” he said.
Cal City Police Department needs to meet “P25” compliance, or moving to a digital transmission system, including reconfiguring radios and replacing towers.
“Within a year if we are not P25-capable, we will not be able to communicate with anyone else in the county,” Walker said. “It’s a big ticket item, but it’s a necessity.”
Walker’s first year as police chief hasn’t been without its challenges. He came in just a few months before COVID-19 became widespread and Gov. Gavin Newsom implemented the first statewide stay-at-home order for all but essential industry and personnel.
“It has impacted us greatly because we’ve had officers with COVID and we just don’t have the resources to go down on or two officers, including me,” Walker said. “I’ve got to give credit to my guys because every time one comes down with it, someone else has to come in and pick up the slack.”
Because of the pandemic, the police department had to close its lobby, just like every other city department did. Doing so has limited public interaction.
“That makes it difficult for folks to come in here and take care of their business for us,” Walker said.
Other interactions with the public have also been impacted, especially when responding to calls for service.
“We have take extra precautions when contacting the community, including wearing masks,” Walker said. “When we take someone into custody, we have to be extra careful how we deal with those people.”
Walker added his officers also respond to a medical call ahead of an ambulance or fire engine, providing an extra layer of challenge.
“We are interacting with these people who need our help but at the same time they may be positive for COVID,” Walker said. “But they’re going in there and doing it.”
Patrolling an area as large as Cal City has its ups and downs, he said. Most of the city’s residents live within a small area, making it manageable.
“But when we get those calls way out near Second City or we have to respond to a traffic accident way down near Highway 58, that makes it very difficult,” Walker said. “We’re taking resources out of the city proper and sending them to the far reaches … that can sap our resources.”
Regardless of those challenges, Walker said crime rate in the last year has dropped.
“My crime rate has dropped 20% over last year,” he said. “It’s interesting on how that’s worked out … you would think, in my opinion, experience and training that crime (during COVID) would go up but it hasn’t.”
A goal Walker said he’s currently working on includes eventually backfilling three open positions. Applications for both new officers and lateral transfers (officers with experience coming from other agencies) have been piling up, but CCPD hasn’t been able to hold interviews due to the needed resources and strict COVID-19 safety precautions.
“We are going to start doing interviews early to mid-next month,” Walker said. “But the challenges there are, if we give x amount of interviews, only a small percentage will be given the opportunity to move on.”
Moving past background checks, interviews and such, even a lateral transfer would need to put field training time “so that they are actually able to go out there and work alone and effectively.”
Hiring an entry level officer, Walker said, means extra steps.
“I would have to get through background and then give them up for six months to an academy, and once I get them back another training period for them which is even more extensive,” he said.
Another challenge to hiring new officers includes competing with other departments in the area for qualified applicants.
“I think along with my goals — those cookie draws — like reliable equipment, good training, a comfortable place to work, a family atmosphere and small town, I’m trying to put out PAs (public announcements) to recruit,” Walker said. “It’s a long process.”
But three new hires to backfill vacancies could help immensely.
“Even with sixteen officers, it would give us a lot of breathing room,” Walker said. “It would create more opportunity for promotion because it would mean promoting to supervisor.”
He added continued training will remain a priority
“Police work is constantly evolving and it is incumbent upon us to evolve with it,” he said. “We must evolve with the police world. We’ve seen in the last year (across the country). There’s no way around it — we need to be transparent, have better training on de-escalation and many, many other things.”
CCPD’s one advantage in accomplishing the goal: it’s small size.
“The fact that we are so small makes it doable,” Walker said. “It’s our job to enforce the law and do it in a professional way within the guidelines.”
Going forward, Walker sees a solid future for his department.
“I’m happy to be here,” he said. “The first year was challenging but at the same time I’m enjoying it and embracing it. I’m really looking forward to this year, moving forward and getting past COVID so we hopefully can get back to normal.”
JACK BARNWELL/MOJAVE DESERT NEWS
California City Police Chief Jon Walker speaks with media on Dec. 29, providing an update on the search for two missing boys, Orson and Orrin West, who went missing on Dec. 21 from their home in the 10700 block of Aspen Avenue.
JACK BARNWELL/MOJAVE DESERT NEWS
Police Chief Jon Walker helps distribute presents to some California City families and children on Dec. 23 as a part of a joint process between Cal City Police and City Fire Departments.