What is Modesto police chief's legacy?

Roy Wasden arrived in Modesto nearly nine years ago with a mandate: Clean up a Police Department that had been tainted by an illegal gun sale.

Within weeks, the new chief's hands were full with an even bigger scandal, the unintended shooting of 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda during a drug raid in the child's Highway Village home.

More than two years later, Wasden led the hunt for Laci Peterson, while the nation's media followed his officers' every move.

His hands remained full even after the spotlight shifted, especially when a hip-hop- inspired melee downtown caught patrol officers off guard in 2007, leading to claims that were full of racial undertones and a hard look at downtown security.

The chief, a religious man who holds a high position in the Mormon church, sometimes seemed as interested in legislation as crime fighting, particularly when he spearheaded efforts to ban Dumpster diving and dancing in downtown venues and to increase penalties for adults who let minors drink alcohol.

Now, Wasden is poised to leave crime fighting, so he can take over as Turlock's city manager by July 1. He said he planned to retire from the Police Department, but jumped at an unexpected opportunity and hopes to leave a legacy of community service in both cities.

"I thought I would never be selected, because I'm a police chief, not a city manager," Wasden said. "I went through the process, and the more I looked at it, the more intriguing it was."

The surprise move brought accolades in Turlock and best wishes in Modesto, even

though officials now must search for a new top cop.

People who have worked with the chief praised his passion for reaching out to community groups, noting Wasden learned Spanish so he could make inroads with Modesto's Latino residents.

But Wasden's focus on community policing has prompted some rank-and-file officers to question his priorities. And Wasden has been known to have a thin skin, taking umbrage when he or his department is criticized. Overall, he is viewed as a good steward of public resources.

"We've had ups and downs," said Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour. "But I think he did a good job."

512 employees await

Wasden, 55, is in charge of Modesto's largest and most influential department. With a budget of nearly $58 million for the budget year that ends June 30, the Police Department and its 254 sworn officers received nearly 48 percent of the city's $122 million general fund.

He will take over a city that has 512 employees and a $35 million general fund budget.

Wasden's salary, $170,363 in Modesto, is expected to grow, although his contract with Turlock has not been settled. His duties will grow, too, as Wasden will be in charge of everything from building and zoning to trash collection and park maintenance to policing.

City managers usually work their way up from the finance or public works departments, said former Modesto City Manager George Britton, but it is not unheard of for a police chief to end up in the executive suite.

Wasden has plenty of experience working with lawmakers, government agencies and community groups. His style drew mixed reactions within the department, including some complaints from those who believed the chief put policy and procedure ahead of street-level crime fighting.

"Police departments always have a diverse group of people," Britton said. "He had his absolute supporters, and he certainly had his detractors."

Some observers have wondered if Wasden's strict moral code influences his decisions, suggesting that it can be hard to approach him with information he may not want to hear.

Another common complaint is the notion the department put too much emphasis on feel-good initiatives or ordinances that are not used, such as the ban on picking through another person's trash or stiffer penalties for adults who let minors drink.

"Many command-level leaders within the department, past and present, believe that Wasden favors programs that tend to bolster the department's image, but fail to deliver an increased level of public safety," said David Cooperider, a retired lieutenant who worked for the Modesto police for 28 years.

Others praised Wasden's open-door policy, saying he takes a common-sense approach to problem-solving.

Mike Moradian, president of La Loma Neighborhood Association in Modesto, is a big fan. He said Wasden helped his group get a green light to install cameras in parks where homeless people cause trouble.

He said Wasden is a diplomat, remaining calm even when people ask accusatory questions at public meetings.

Wendy Byrd, president of the Modesto-Stanislaus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Wasden has worked to smooth tension between blacks and law enforcement, and recently agreed to let impartial observers accompany people who want moral support when they file formal complaints against a police officer.

Byrd: He built a bridge

She noted that the Sheriff's Department turned down the same request.

"There's still more work to do," Byrd said. "But I think that Chief Wasden has really created a bridge."

Wasden said he appreciates an honest debate but has no time for anonymous critics who snipe in online blogs or talk behind his back.

"If somebody has the courage to come and walk in my door and tell me they think I'm wrong, they're going to get my attention," he said.

Wasden came to Modesto in the summer of 2000, after a 24-year career in Salt Lake City, where he rose to assistant chief. His tenure in Modesto is longer than the three- to five-year average reported by the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

When he took office Aug. 7, 2000, the Police Department was opening new headquarters at 10th and G streets, but a cloud hung over the organization, which had been led by three interim chiefs in the prior year.

Former Chief Paul Jefferson was forced to retire in August 1999, after seven years on the job, in the wake of a scandal dubbed "Gun Gate," which also claimed former City Manager Ed Tewes.

The department sold 241 surplus weapons to active-duty and reserve officers in 1996 and 1997, violating city policy and state law because the firearms were not sold through a licensed dealer and paperwork was not in order.

Jefferson replaced Chief Gerald McKinsey, who held the job from 1976-92 and later served on the City Council.

Wasden devoted a lot of his time to revamping policies and procedures, an effort that helped the department earn a commendation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a nationwide group that tries to improve the delivery of public safety services.

In June 2002, the city agreed to pay the Sepulveda family $2.55 million and Wasden agreed to change department procedures at the request of the family to prevent accidental shootings. Wasden, however, said then that officers had followed those procedures, even though they were not written policies.

"For myself and the department," Wasden said then, "this has been a difficult ordeal to go through. But what we experienced isn't a fraction of what the family went through. I'm sorry this happened, and the department is sorry this happened."

In the following years, the chief battled Modesto's image as auto theft capital of the United States, devoting staff and money to fight a regional problem that persists. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Stanislaus County has had the nation's highest car theft rates in five of the past six years.

Wasden also served as chairman of a statewide task force on medical marijuana laws, taking a dim view of an initiative passed by voters in 1996. Modesto police assisted federal drug agents who put a McHenry Avenue cannabis dispensary out of business, then sent its owners to prison for 20 years.

By spring 2006, the race was on to fill the seat of former Sheriff Les Weidman, who left office to work for Gov. Schwarzenegger.

As chief of the county's largest police department, Wasden was an obvious candidate. He declined to run, taking a leadership position in his church instead.

A father of seven who married his high school sweetheart, Wasden is Modesto stake president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A stake is similar to a diocese in the Catholic Church; Wasden's stake has about 3,000 members.

The sheriff's job went to Adam Christianson, who took office in July 2006, but Wasden was the one who made headlines, thanks to the hard line he took against a hip-hop style of music from the East Bay called "hyphy."

The issue, and its racial undertones, came to a head Labor Day weekend 2006, when a large group of teens who could not get into a dance party at the downtown Palladium nightclub clashed with law enforcement.

Police formed riot lines and used dogs to break up the crowd, later saying they were caught off guard by an event that spiraled out of control because 1,500 people showed up at a club with room for 200.

Parents and teens complained that the young people were targeted because many in the crowd were black. Wasden said his department no longer would approve permits for underage dances at downtown clubs.

Restricting nightspots

Later, the department took aim at all nightclubs, recommending a moratorium on the number of downtown establishments that could allow dancing. The City Council put the brakes on the effort, instead appointing a seven-member commission to balance the needs of business with security concerns.

Chris Ricci, a music promoter and general manager of the Fat Cat club on 11th Street, said he always has been able to negotiate with Wasden, even if they have very different ideas about entertainment.

"I'm not going to tell you we agreed on everything, because we didn't," Ricci said. "But we always found ways to make it work, and for people who may have some different beliefs, that's impressive."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at or 578-2338.

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