Deputy Chief Chris Hsiung, a veteran officer promoted last week to second in command at the Mountain View Police Department, will be heading efforts to train officers as the agency's top brass nears retirement in the coming years.
Hsiung has worked in or overseen virtually every aspect of law enforcement in the Bay Area throughout his 29-year career, and is largely credited for transforming the way the department communicates with the public. His new job puts him in charge of most day-to-day operations including budget and finance matters, Hsiung told the Voice in an interview.
Described by colleagues as an approachable, compassionate leader who frequently walks the department halls to check in on co-workers and remembers birthdays, Hsiung has spent the last six years as one of the department's two captains. Since his promotion to captain in 2013, he has overseen law enforcement functions ranging from investigations and personnel services to field operations and the more than half-dozen patrol teams.
Capt. Jessica Nowaski, who has worked with Hsiung for the last 24 years, said she couldn't be more thrilled to work alongside him at the department, calling him a calm and level-headed presence. Though soft-spoken and not outwardly boisterous, she said Hsiung is very social and was the driving force behind the department's public transparency efforts and use of social media during the early years of Twitter.
"He was really an innovator for putting Mountain View on the map for transparency and communication," she said. "I could not pick a better work partner or leader."
Hsiung conceded that the desk job isn't as interesting as being in a patrol car, but the newly created deputy chief position puts him in the driver seat of an important initiative: making sure rookie officers have the leadership skills they need to be future sergeants, lieutenants and captains in a police department where high-ranking officers are hitting retirement age.
"As we look at our police force in the two, five and seven-year forecast, there's going to be a lot of attrition and retirements down the road," Hsiung said. "We want to be prepared to have people who will be qualified and assume new positions of leadership in the coming years."
As of this year, 17% of the department's officers are eligible for retirement. In five years, that number grows to 43%, and many of those officers are holding top positions. Hsiung, Nowaski and Police Chief Max Bosel were all hired in 1995, and several lieutenants were hired in the 1990s as well.
Given the department's preference to hire in-house, Hsiung said he plans to oversee a combination of formal training and leadership development courses alongside more casual events like coffees, breakfasts and lunches aimed at instilling soft skills. It's one thing to know the technical aspects of the job, he said, but there's an emotional intelligence side to leadership that needs to come with it.
"You need to match it with the soft skills of being a good communicator and having the emotional intelligence to know how you're being heard," he said.
Nowaski said law enforcement as a profession has evolved over the last five to 10 years, with changes in technology, politics and society that make policing more complex than ever. While it helps to have technical experience, she said it will be more valuable to reinforce those soft skills and critical thinking in the department's future leaders.
"There's only so much 'training' we can give folks to go out and perform the jobs of a police officer," she said. "What we need to do is instill those critical thinking skills, empathy and compassion."
Over the last decade, Hsiung said his goal has been to change the culture of law enforcement and get away from the idea that police shouldn't say anything to anyone, residents and media alike. While some of that comes from harnessing social media and engaging the public with information on serious crimes -- counterbalanced by public service announcements and jovial memes -- it also means appraising officers on anything that gets released.
Officers are constantly briefed and updated on outgoing communication to the public, with a goal of ensuring nobody in the department is caught off guard when talking to the public. Hsiung said his nightmare scenario is putting out a press release and a resident strikes up a conversation about it with an officer who has no idea about it.
Many of the social media responsibilities are now handled by the department's public information officer, Katie Nelson, who said Hsiung deserves credit for leading the way on public communication and encouraging other police departments to follow suit. The Mountain View Police Department got an early jump on Twitter in 2008, followed by Facebook in 2010, but it wasn't until Hsiung took the initiative that they became an integral part of the department's community engagement strategy.
"We existed on those platforms but we didn't communicate and didn't engage the way we do now," Nelson said. "That's where Chris took off and ran with it."
The department's leadership team is still figuring out what precise responsibilities will be handled by the deputy chief, which operates out of the office of the police chief, but generally speaking Hsiung will be managing the department's more than 50 officers and what they're doing each day, Nelson said. He will also be entrenched in investigative decisions, ensuring the dispatch center operates smoothly and deciding what needs to be done to backfill positions or hire more people.
The new high-ranking position comes at a critical time for the Mountain View Police Department. Alongside plans to renovate or completely rebuild the department's headquarters at 1000 Villa St., the department is conducting a staffing study to figure out what structural changes and new hires might be needed to protect a growing city with crimes that are getting more difficult to investigate.
One example is the department's Cyber Crime Unit, which was recently added to meet the growing need to police illicit online behavior and handle digital evidence in-house rather than by using an outside forensic examiner. The department needs to stay on its toes and improve the ways it serves Mountain View, Nowaski said.
"We have an appreciation of how we incorporate innovative approaches to delivering police services to a community with a reasonable amount of change," she said. "Not just sitting back, putting it down into third gear and say 'That's how we've always done it.' That's not good enough for us."