Meet Interim Chief Lee ViolettBy Kristine Wong
When Don O'Keefe stepped down from his position as Police Chief in September to become the U.S. Federal Marshal in Northern California, police department veteran Lee Violett stepped in as Interim Chief. Half Moon Bay Patch sat down with Violett to learn more about his background, what he sees as his mandate, and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role.
Growing up in San Bruno -- where he still lives today -- Violett was inspired to be a police officer by a mentor who was working in law enforcement at the time. Violett spent the first 26 years of his career as an officer in the San Mateo Police Department. During that period, he worked in nearly every part of the agency: traffic enforcement, narcotics enforcement, as a detective and as a detective supervisor. He also was a member of the SWAT team for 15 years. In 1994, Violett was promoted as captain and served in that position for five years until he moved on to head San Bruno's police force.
According to Violett, a police officer that lives in the same city that he/she serves in is a different experience than living outside of the city where he/she works. "You live and breathe the issues," he said. "My wife and I go for daily walks -- 3 to 5 miles a day -- and when I was police chief, people would talk to me all the time about what was going on." Violett says many police officers do not live in the same places they work, but Half Moon Bay is unique in that a good portion of the officers live in the community, which he says has a positive effect overall.
Violett is particularly proud of some of his accomplishments during his 8-year tenure as the chief of police in his hometown, such as the time he spent overseeing the construction phase for a new police facility and its transition in 2002 from its former City Hall location to its current location in a building the department shares with the BART Police Department. The current facility is 26,000 square feet -- more than three times the size of its previous home.
Violett speaks most animatedly, however, about an initiative he spearheaded in 2004 in partnership with the San Mateo Police Department aimed at reducing gang-on-gang violence within each city's Tongan community -- the Crip Gangsters in San Mateo and the Baby Gangsters in San Bruno.
"We were seeing a lot of violence among Tongan youth teenagers in their 20s - factions from San Mateo and San Bruno...we had seen numerous altercations between them shooting each other," he said. "I got together with [San Mateo Police Chief] Susan Manheimer and leaders from faith-based communities, both the mayors, and talked about what we could do...they [the youth] were also becoming more aggressive to police officers in terms of not respecting any police authority at all."
The result of that meeting was the birth of the Tongan Interfaith Collaborative, an initiative that drew upon the highly respected role occupied by religious leaders in the Tongan community. "One of the things we did was have the Tongan faith-based leaders ride along in police cars," Violett said. After the Tongan leaders came out of the car during a police stop of Tongan youth, he said, the dynamic between the the youth and the police changed immediately.
The Tongan Interfaith Collaborative also sent two police officers to Tonga so they could immerse themsevles in the culture and its traditions, a trip that Violett says was controversial.
The work of the Collaborative had other effects as well. "We saw a decrease in violence between those two factions [the Tongan gangs] and we hired Tongan police officers," Violett said. The Tongan Interfaith Collaborative still exists today, and is based in San Mateo.
In December 2006, Violett chose to retire, but couldn't stay out of the workforce for long. "I wasn't mentally ready," he says. Violett started a organizational consulting firm, but was soon tapped to be Millbrae's Interim Police Chief, a position he left earlier this year when the city decided to merge their police and fire departments with neighboring San Bruno.
Though Violett acknowledges the increased workload Half Moon Bay police officers have had to take on in recent years -- budget cuts trimmed down its force from 19 to 12 sworn officers and reduced Chief O'Keefe's hours down to 60% -- he declined to comment as to whether this reduction in coverage resulted in a lack of protection and services for city residents. "That's not part of my charge," he says.
Violett currently works 30 hours a week, but emphasizes that he still has a full-time responsibility to the police department.
What does Violett does see as his mandate? "Continuing the good work of Don O'Keefe and to keep initiatives in place that the Chief had in place," he says, citing the Coastside Emergency Action Program as one such initiative.
The city's financial burdens puts Violett in a holding pattern, as the police department's future is contingent upon operating funds supplied from the city. On Nov. 2, city residents will vote on Measure K, a ballot measure which proposes to enact a 1% sales tax hike for seven years. City leaders say that passing Measure K will enable the city to maintain the current level of staffing at the police department. Violett says that he is prepared to work with the city after the election to take the next steps for the department to transition into its next phase -- whatever those steps may be.
At that time, he says, the new police chief will be tasked with determining what resources the city has to prioritize police services.
Copyright ©2010 San Bruno Patch. Published 10/15/2010.