A man who grew up in the Modesto Police Department will now lead it.
Mike Harden, who started his law enforcement career as a teenage Police Explorer at Davis High School, was appointed the city's police chief Wednesday.
Mayor Jim Ridenour made the surprise announcement during his 2010 State of the City speech. He primed the crowd for the news by saying that Modesto saw a 4 percent drop in serious crime in 2009, including a 10 percent dip in car thefts. That news drew hearty applause, but the audience rose for a standing ovation when Harden was announced as the chief.
Harden, 47, has served as acting chief since Roy Wasden left in June.
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Harden stepped in to head a department beset by challenges. Forced to make deep budget cuts, the city laid off nine officers last year after a showdown with the 202-member police union. The union refused to defer raises to save the city $820,000 and prevent the layoffs.
Less than a month later, Modesto won a $4.4 million federal grant and rehired the full-time officers it had laid off. The federal grant will cover those salaries for three years, but it doesn't mean the department is out of the financial woods.
The mayor said Wednesday that Modesto is looking at another year of difficult budget choices that will require at least $8 million in cuts. Harden said he doesn't know yet whether those could include layoffs.
Despite scarce resources, Harden has presided over several initiatives designed to beef up the city's response to gang violence. He created a gang investigations team and put the former street crimes unit to work full time on gang suppression.
The department recently unveiled an anti-gang program known as Project SAFE (Striving for Accountability and Future Employment), which offers gang members an avenue out of gangs.
Working with the Stanislaus County district attorney's office, the department has been enforcing a gang injunction in south and west Modesto. The injunction makes it illegal for gang members to wear gang colors, go out after 10 p.m. or engage in gang-related behavior.
Councilman Dave Lopez credited Harden with bringing a new mood to the Police Department. "The feel of the Police Department, even from the ground level, feels completely different," Lopez said. "It feels more friendly, there's a customer service feel about it since he's taken over."
Lopez said Harden has worked closely with him on Partners in Paint, a program Lopez started to wipe out graffiti. Harden has attended meetings, offered input and stood in alleys to watch demonstrations of graffiti removal products, Lopez said.
Likewise, Modesto Police Officers Association President Tony Arguelles said rank-and-file officers appreciate Harden's hands-on leadership style. Harden recently attended a training where officers brushed up on extreme driving skills.
"The men and women of MPOA like to see a chief that wants to stay proficient on his fundamental police skills," Arguelles said. "It's good to see the guy that's your boss down in the trenches with you doing training. It builds a very strong camaraderie."
Search firm nixed by city manager
Cities sometimes hire search firms to recruit police chiefs, but Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff decided against that option.
Such searches can cost upward of $30,000. Nyhoff said spending city money to gamble on finding someone who may or may not be better suited to the job didn't make sense.
"What he proved to me from the very beginning is that he wasn't just going to talk. He had ideas about how to improve things, and so far those numbers have been good," Nyhoff said, referring to Modesto's 2009 crime drop. Nyhoff said he and Harden have set a goal to reduce major crimes in Modesto by 3 percent over the next year.
Harden said he was humbled by his new job, calling his appointment a "product of timing."
He became assistant police chief starting in 2003. Before that he led a homicide unit as a sergeant. Harden's salary as chief will be $165,766. To save money, the city will leave the deputy police chief position unfilled for the foreseeable future, Nyhoff said.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," Harden said. "To lead a department I adore for a city I love is a tremendous opportunity."