‘People flee bad leadership’ in Sunnyvale’s public safety department
The Sunnyvale Public Safety Headquarters is seen on Jan. 5, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Retired Sunnyvale officials say police officers are leaving the once highly regarded department in droves—and they’re blaming the leadership of the chief.

    Chief Phan Ngo took the helm of Sunnyvale’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) in 2017 and since then nearly 30 officers have departed, according to city data through June 2023 obtained by San José Spotlight. The officers—who are cross-trained as police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians—reportedly left to take other jobs, over claims of dissatisfaction or for other reasons including commutes, illnesses, relocation or family obligations.

    Those figures do not include officers who retired or were fired.

    “That statistic alone is just mind blowing,” Craig Anderson, a former public safety captain who recently retired but worked nearly 25 years for Sunnyvale DPS, told San José Spotlight.

    This exodus is tied to allegations of missteps by Ngo, including hiring or promoting people to high-ranking leadership positions based on favoritism instead of qualifications or merit, resulting in command staff being overwhelmed in their roles.

    In the three years before Ngo took over, only three officers left the department for those same reasons, city data shows. Four others left in fiscal year 2016-17, either as Ngo was about to take over or in his first six months.

    Ngo and City Manager Kent Steffens declined to comment through a city spokesperson.

    Over Ngo’s tenure, the Sunnyvale Public Safety Officers Association—the union representing officers—has broadly criticized his leadership. Membership expressed dissatisfaction with Ngo via a vote of no confidence in Ngo’s first year and a half on the job.

    “People flee bad leadership, they don’t necessarily flee other things,” Anderson said. “People will endure less money and less benefits if they are in a good work environment, but people are leaving Sunnyvale.”

    Sinking morale 

    The public safety union conducted two back-to-back morale surveys in 2020 and 2021, in which officers could sound off anonymously on a host of issues in an effort to push for changes.

    Rank and file officers said they don’t feel Ngo will support them in tough situations if political winds blow in another direction, and he doesn’t take criticism or input well, according to the retired leaders and surveys.

    “If you’re someone who has ever disagreed with him about a policy he is trying to push through or an idea he has for a change, and he becomes aware you have voiced objections, even in a fair and diplomatic way, that will come back to bite you,” Anderson said.

    Anderson and retired Lt. Tracy Hern said the union raised alarms over several years citing few changes to better support officers, despite meetings with Ngo where grievances were shared.

    “The chief kept saying, ‘It’s my department, I’ll run it as I see fit,’” Hern told San José Spotlight. Hern, a former vice president of the union, retired last December.

    In the 2020 morale survey issued while Hern was union vice president, about 81% of the 166 officers surveyed responded that Ngo was doing “not very well” or “not well at all” in creating trust with frontline officers. Nearly 80% felt he was not in touch with day-to-day aspects of public safety officers’ work, and about 75% said they didn’t think he was a strong leader, among other critiques.

    The 2021 survey with similar questions showed slight improvement, but officers’ views of Ngo were still largely poor.

    “Chief Ngo lords over this department as if his opinion and beliefs are the only ones that matter,” one officer’s anonymous comment said in the 2020 survey.

    Other officers complained about lack of communication, a feeling that Ngo believes all officers are corrupt and must be monitored and said he broke promises, including that he would meet with the whole staff.

    “I strongly believe the only way DPS will improve morale is for Chief Ngo to resign or be fired by city council,” another officer wrote in 2021.

    The city hired a communications coach in 2021 to facilitate talks between Ngo, his command staff and the union.

    “It was damn near a waste of time, it was like family therapy,” Hern said. “One of the things we got done was a toilet got fixed in the men’s room, but we couldn’t do anything about major issues.”

    Hern said throughout talks with other officers and Ngo it is clear Ngo doesn’t want “free thinkers” in the department.

    “It’s all about what the chief wants. Doesn’t matter how good you are, or how well you study or how well you do on a test, it’s about if the chief wants you or if you’re his little buddy,” Hern said.

    Another part-time employee charged with managing the department’s social media posts said they were unceremoniously let go earlier this year when their position was eliminated by Ngo. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said their firing after seven years with the department was due to differing viewpoints on how to approach posts to the public about crime and safety.

    The employee said Former Chief Frank Grgurina encouraged them to share weekly crime blotter posts on social media, and to be more transparent about crime trends and public safety notices. But Ngo wanted something else entirely, they said.

    “The new chief comes on and he wants rainbows and unicorns, and he doesn’t want to share info about arrests and crime and wants to keep the community the dark,” the former employee told San José Spotlight.

    Looking ahead

    Not everyone points the blame directly at Ngo, however. Union President Lt. Alan Harnett disagreed with attributing the departures completely to Ngo, and warned against painting with a broad brush.

    “What I do know from the casual conversations I had with those leaving was that the rationale for leaving DPS to go someplace else varies,” Harnett told San José Spotlight. “It is also typical for someone to have more than one reason for making a change.”

    Harnett acknowledged some challenges, especially during Ngo’s early days as chief.

    “It’s no secret that the (public safety union) and Chief Ngo got off to a rocky start,” Harnett said. But he added the vote of no confidence was in the past, and said the union is focusing on addressing challenges faced by its members and the department, and avoiding “politics.” He described the current relationship with the chief as “functional.”

    He also said the facilitated discussions with the communication coach were productive.

    “Overall, I think the process was successful and led to some small but important systemic changes that have helped the way we operate,” Harnett said.

    Mayor Larry Klein said though he’s heard some concerns about Ngo’s leadership, he has faith in him, the city manager and the leadership of the public safety union. He said he has no plans to fire Ngo.

    “We have a lot of different people across a 1,000 person (citywide) organization overall, and the comments from one person I take with a grain of salt and try to get further understanding,” Klein told San José Spotlight. “Our department has a reputation for being well run. My dealings with the chief have been fairly positive.”

    Klein said DPS is still attracting officers from other cities and counties to fill vacancies—the department has 195 sworn officers and six vacant positions. Neighboring San Jose Police Department, which is much larger than Sunnyvale’s combined public safety department, has faced issues retaining and recruiting officers. City leaders there committed to funding more police positions earlier this year.

    “We’re fairly lucky that we have a lot of people that really want to work at our public safety department,” Klein said.

    Klein said the concerns raised by officers in the 2020 and 2021 surveys could have been influenced by frustrations from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mask mandates, constantly shifting public health guidelines and social unrest in reaction to police violence were all factors at the time, he said.

    “Whether that was Black Lives Matter or COVID, it was a very difficult two years to be a frontline responder,” Klein said.

    Harnett said disagreements are normal, but DPS still needs improvement.

    “We don’t have the time or luxury to sit back and point fingers at who is to blame on the challenges we face,” Harnett said. “We would rather just focus on fixing them.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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