Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones knows all about trial by fire. Jones has spent his entire career in the Stockton, CA, department, working his way up the ranks until he became appointed as chief on March 1, 2012, shortly before the city had to file for bankruptcy, which led many of his experienced officers to leave.
Stockton has been considered a crime-heavy city for years, even ranking as Forbes’ eighth most dangerous city in the nation in 2012. And in July 2014, Jones faced one of the hardest, most stressful events any chief has had to face: three armed men stormed a Bank of the West branch, took three hostages, and led police on an hour-long chase, firing more than 100 rounds at the officers with an AK-47 and disabling a dozen police vehicles, including their armored vehicle. The event concluded with a dramatic shootout in which officers fired more than 600 rounds that left one hostage dead, killed by bullets fired by police officers. Jones was lauded for his handling of the traumatic event. None were really surprised because the chief has been praised throughout his tenure for showing how effective true leadership can be.
1) Recently, the city of Stockton officially got out of bankruptcy. What were your methods when running the police department where morale had to be damaged and the department’s capabilities to operate had been strangled by budgetary forces out of your control?
It was a huge challenge. We became a young department really quickly. The first task I did was get around our police department, opening listening sessions, talking about what we were experiencing, what we were going through, reconnecting with our staff.
My No. 1 focus was to build internal moral because I felt like we were falling apart. And that wasn’t just me, that was my entire command staff. I knew morale was first and foremost. Then I began reaching out to the community. We had some fractured community relations because we had gone to a bunker mentality after losing so many staff. Then we began working on strategic plans to rebuild the police department.
2) Two years into your career as police chief, you faced what can only be described as a sentinel event in policing with the robbery at Bank of the West. You have been universally praised for taking a proactive role in discussing the incident publicly both early and often. What led to that?
I knew it was the right thing to do. Sometimes you get advice from various people, “don’t say this” or “say this,” and then you also sometimes have a gut feel for what the right thing to do is. And that guided me, just my core principles. Then I also had a lot of good expertise from my public information officer and my deputy chiefs. We talked a lot about this. I just knew that I had to talk to every officer involved in it, and I also had a duty to the family of Misty Holt-Singh (the hostage who was killed), and then I had a duty to the community. The family needed to know the information first, so I met with them frequently. And then the community and the public – they were owed information.
This event so impacted our entire community that I just felt like I owed them some information about this, good bad or indifferent. That’s why we put together a couple of press conferences early and then I did another one saying yes it was our police bullets that unfortunately killed her. I put that out early too because I felt it was necessary, it was the right thing to do. If it was say a year down the road and it came out that we had that information, how do I defend not putting it out earlier. I just didn’t feel right doing anything otherwise.
3) You also did the same when it comes to handling things internally. How would you describe handling the incident in that manner?
I knew this was a tough thing for our employees. I mean, we lost one, we lost a hostage. It was a traumatic event. That was tough for our department. I knew that we had to be really concerned about their wellness. I remember the evening of that incident. We put them all up in a hotel, and just going around talking to each and every one of them to let them know I was glad they were okay, to making sure we had our chaplains, we’ve got our peer support, and our wellness programs in place.
We followed up with what we call our wellness network that we actually rolled out not long before this incident happened, which is threefold: it’s a mental, spiritual and physical wellness network. So we have our police chaplains, we’ve got our peer support and police psychologist, and we encourage physical health. We actually didn’t have it up totally full and running, but we pulled out all the bells and whistles and deployed what we could do. But I also relied on my fellow law enforcement agencies to send their peer support experts. In fact, our peer supports guys needed peer support. An example is, I reached out to the Modesto police chief and asked if he could send me his peer support folks, and that was a huge benefit.
4) What do you do to make sure that you get the support that you need?
Good point. And its another reason I couldn’t be more proud to be involved in this police department. The first few days, as you can imagine, for any of us at the PD, you can get compassion fatigue where you are worrying about everyone else and not realizing you are draining your own batteries. So if your batteries get below the reserve level, then you’re probably not that good to anyone else. Here’s the benefit I have here at the police department, people like my public information officer, Joey Silva, who would say, “are you okay?” or “how are you doing?”
And other staff were making sure to reach out to me. I even had some line-level officers who would catch me in the hallway and thank me for the way the press or other things were handled, but they would also say, “I want to make sure you are okay. Is anyone asking about you?” And a lot of people did in the department. It reminded me to slow down, take a breath, eat. I have some fellow police chiefs from other areas that I have gained a rapport with who did simple things like remind me to keep eating and exercising.
5) Policing nationwide is taking a lot of criticism lately. What advice can you give in turning that perception around?
The pendulum sure seems to have gone pretty far the other way and everybody sees it. We are in law enforcement, we are up for being open and allowing for scrutiny. And, big incidents like we went through, second guessing is a common thing that is going to happen out there. But, I believe that the pendulum will come back. When, I don’t know. I think that the way that will happen is, it’s having the community support – that we know is out there — be a little bit more vocal to not give too much weight to the other side of the conversation.
But what it comes down to is it’s going to take all of us in law enforcement to be open and transparent and to gain trust back through the media and the community. In fact, I heard this, when we put out the information about the fact that our bullets killed Misty Holt-Singh, I heard some surprise that we put it out, but I also heard, wow, thats a department that is transparent and makes us feel like we can trust the department.
Is that information painful,? Yes, But If we’re willing to put that out there, the community can feel like they can trust what we are saying. If they get the impression of a cloak over the police department, that’s not going to help us in the future.
Chief Eric Jones holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from California State University, Sacramento, and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from National University. He has long enjoyed learning about leadership, studying both the successes — and perhaps more importantly, the failures — of leadership under fire. His favorite book on the subject — “Leading at the Edge” by Dennis Perkins — sits in his office.