From Levi’s Stadium to drones: A conversation with Santa Clara’s new police chief
Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai poses for a portrait outside the Police Department Monday. Photo by Katie Lauer.

After an unexpected September vacancy, uncontested election and unprecedented global pandemic, Police Chief Pat Nikolai has settled into his new role as head of the Santa Clara Police Department.

Growing up in South San Jose, the 51-year-old Santa Clara resident has spent his entire 28-year law enforcement career serving the Mission City, now overseeing 139 sworn officers and department employees.

Nikolai, a former Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association president, has already seen calls for service plummet 40 percent each month during the coronavirus crisis, while property crimes and domestic abuse have increased. Now he’ll have deep financial cuts to combat in the months ahead, too.

Nikolai sat down with San José Spotlight Monday to discuss his unusual transition, continued priorities and longterm vision for the Santa Clara Police Department.

Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai poses for a portrait outside the Police Department Monday. Photo by Katie Lauer.

How was the first week as chief been?

Several months ago when the filing deadline passed and no one else put (their name) in, it was kind of obvious this was coming.

At that time I started to transition into a different role. Even though Assistant Chief Dan Winter was the public face of the department, internally I was getting involved and getting up to speed. It’s a steep learning curve – budgets are a perfect example.

Now with the coronavirus and the numbers that we’re seeing, I can’t look at just the police department on an island — you have to look at it as part of the entire city. So, when the city says we need to cover a $10 million deficit, it’s obviously a group effort.

You’ve previously said your priorities are getting more officers on the streets as well as bringing in new technology. How do those ideas look now?

We’re talking about bringing in a drone program, and I think that’s going to help us with our staffing problems – basically a drone as a first responder.

When a call for service comes out, we launch the drone, and because it flies in a straight line, it’s often times there before the officers arrive so they’re able to give you real time data on the scene. Luckily, that money was already budgeted and spent. But it’s a slow process getting it up and running, going through all the FAA requirements and trainings.

The Chief’s Advisory Committee and council were very supportive of it, and we’re only going to use it for calls for service. We’re not just going to have the drone roaming the city looking for crime.

Levi’s Stadium: What’s the first thought that pops to your head?

One of the big issues that’s being litigated is the cap on public safety costs. When the stadium was originally planned and developed, there was a dollar amount that was set for public safety costs for NFL events. The city is of the opinion that the 49ers should be paying for those overages, and the 49ers are of the opinion that they should only pay for the cap amount.

I think we were very close to having some of the decisions being made through the courts until COVID hit, and now everything is delayed. But the bottom line is that the police department is there to provide public safety, and we will keep doing that 100 percent of the time as the stadium reopens – however it reopens.

Does the stadium open with no fans? I don’t know. When they do start bringing in fans, do they have to have social distancing? It’s really a huge unknown. But I think that once the litigation is resolved, that’s going to make a big difference and we’ll be able to move forward.

Are there any changes to the department that you see right away that you’ll have to take on?

I wanted to increase the size of our training unit, and we started that already. I think that a lot of times when departments get into trouble, it’s because of a lack of training, and whenever there’s a lawsuit one of the first things they do is go back over your training records. So I want to make sure that our department is the best trained in the state.

It could be something like use of force, which is constantly changing what’s allowed. With the body cameras, that’s a whole new aspect of force because everything is on not only on our cameras but on surveillance cameras or people’s cell phones.

Use of force training is updated every year, and that’s the kind of thing where I want to make sure that we are never behind the curve.

So, it’s not like you’re starting from scratch?

No, that’s not the situation. When I ran three years ago, I thought the department needed a change of leadership. I think we weren’t listening to our personnel as much as we should. I think that’s one of my strong suits.

One of the officers had an idea for a new program to increase our canine unit. We have the biters and there’s also the sniffers –we call them the floppy ear dogs. Why don’t we bring in some more floppy ear dogs? We use them at the stadium all the time, but we have to bring multiple dogs in from multiple agencies because we have so few.

It would be another asset here at the department that I think would be relatively low cost. When you have a missing person, maybe someone with Alzheimer’s just wanders away, it would be great to be able to bring out a dog and just immediately track them down.

Now as chief, you’re the head of the department. How do you take stories of police departments across the country – things they’ve done well, things that haven’t been done well – and bring that into your work here?

When you see a department that gets bad press, it’s not only bad press for that department, but it’s bad press for the entire profession. We will use that as a training tool to get the word out that, ‘Here’s what happened, let’s not do that.’

I think what’s important is, as a department, if something bad does happen, you need to acknowledge if our officers made a mistake. You need to own up to that mistake.

In the old days, before videos were so prevalent, it was basically, ‘Don’t say anything until a year later when the investigation is totally done.’ You can’t do that nowadays, you need to get the information out sooner rather than later. We’re still going to do an investigation, we’re still going to get to the truth of the matter — but you need to address the perception immediately, because we are human beings just like you are, and we will make mistakes.

Contact Katie Lauer at katie@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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