A decades-old debate has resurfaced in Santa Clara: how the city should choose its police chief.
The city is unique in California in that it elects its police chief by popular vote, but some Santa Clara councilmembers say the current system forces the public to choose from a shallow, underqualified candidate pool. They want to amend the city charter to allow city leaders to appoint the chief and do away with the current system. Others, including the current chief, argue the change is a political move that would strip voters of their right to choose department leadership.
In a city of roughly 127,000 people, Santa Clara police chief candidates must meet two main criteria: live in Santa Clara and be employed as a police officer in any city, according to several city officials. But of the department’s 153 sworn officers, only about a dozen live in the city, Vice Mayor Suds Jain said, and those officers don’t have enough experience to lead the department.
“It seems incredibly disadvantageous to not be able to draw from a bigger pool of experienced police officers,” Jain told San José Spotlight.
He and several other councilmembers say they want city officials to appoint the chief like every other California police department. Santa Clara is the only city in the state that elects its police chief, said Leslie McGill, executive director of the California Police Chiefs Association. The association does not have an opinion on whether Santa Clara should elect its chief, McGill said.
Councilmember Karen Hardy said by adopting an appointment process similar to other cities, Santa Clara could drop the residency requirement and conduct nationwide searches for its chief. That process would eliminate the chances of an incumbent chief overstaying their welcome.
“Once someone’s an incumbent, it is very difficult to take them out,” Hardy told San José Spotlight. “A challenger has to convince the electorate that they made a mistake the first time, and that is very difficult.”
Such is the case with former Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, Hardy said. Smith maintained her position for nearly 24 years, only leaving office in October just before being convicted in civil court on multiple counts of corruption.
Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai, 54, disagrees with the councilmembers. By changing the city charter, he said, officials would rob voters of their right to choose their own police chief.
“When you’re looking at accountability, there is nothing more accountable than being elected by voters,” Nikolai told San José Spotlight. “There’s certain members of the council that want to take away the power of the voters and give it to themselves.”
Officers who live in Santa Clara and work for other police departments could run for chief, Nikolai said, and aspiring candidates can always relocate.
“Anybody that wanted to be the police chief could move into the city and run for office,” Nikolai said.
Choosing a chief
Police departments like San Jose have conducted their own controversial nationwide searches, only to promote someone from within, Nikolai said. There, the city manager chooses a police chief candidate and the city council votes on whether to approve the manager’s selection. San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata, an SJPD veteran of 26 years, was promoted to chief in 2021 after a three-month search. The appointment sparked controversy after some local policymakers criticized Mata’s record at the department.
Nikolai dismissed Hardy’s fears of a Sheriff Smith-like situation at the Santa Clara Police Department, pointing to recent sheriff’s races in Alameda and San Mateo counties, both of which resulted in incumbents being unseated.
Hardy and Jain said they think Nikolai is underqualified to be chief, and an appointment process would allow the council to choose candidates with more experience and advanced degrees and prevent underqualified candidates from running unopposed.
The Silicon Valley Voice examined the qualifications of 30 police chiefs across the state and found that while Nikolai was one of the highest-paid chiefs in California, he lacked the advanced degrees and previous experience many of his counterparts hold.
San Jose Police Chief Mata has a master’s degree in public administration and graduated from the Police Executive Research Forum’s Senior Management Institute for Police. LAPD Chief Michel Moore has a master’s degree in business administration and 40 years of experience at the department. Nikolai, by contrast, has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and more than 30 years of experience.
Nikolai acknowledged that when he first ran for the position in 2016, and lost, voters felt he was underqualified. But the chief has since completed a college degree, he said, and his three decades of experience qualify him for the job.
“I would stack my resume up against any other chief in the county,” Nikolai said.
Voters elected Nikolai as police chief when he ran unopposed in a 2020 special election after former Assistant Police Chief Dan Winter, who has a law degree and is a member of the California Bar Association, dropped out of the heated race.
Changing the charter
The choice of whether to change the city charter will ultimately fall to voters, who won’t be able to make that decision until at least 2024. The city council tried and failed to make the same change in 1971, and the issue has been a point of debate ever since. The council will need to appoint a charter review committee to review the potential change, Hardy said, a move that’s unlikely to happen before the council finds a new city attorney and city manager.
Nikolai sees the stir-ups at City Hall as a sign that the council’s focus is misdirected. Councilmembers should concentrate on governance issues instead of changing how the city chooses its chief, he said.
Hardy, on the other hand, is confident voters will support the change if city leadership provides clear messaging about what it will entail.
“They will be giving up something,” Hardy said. “But I think they’ll be getting more in the end.”