When the national search for Fresno’s next police chief launched — for the first time — last year, Paco Balderrama didn’t think he was ready.
In April 2019, he had just become the first Latino deputy chief in Oklahoma City’s history. He didn’t feel he had enough experience at that point to step into Fresno’s top police job.
One year later, the opportunity arose again. This time, Balderrama viewed it differently.
“In a very weird kind of way, I felt like like the (hiring) flier was describing me as far as my skills, my abilities, my background, my experience. It really felt like like they were describing me. So I found it intriguing,” Balderrama said.
On Tuesday, Mayor Lee Brand and Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer announced Balderrama as the 22nd police chief and first Latino chief in the city’s history.
Balderrama spoke with GV Wire for one of his first local one-on-one interviews.
Changes Will Come
“Changes will come, but they will come in time,” Balderrama said of his plans to implement new department policies.
He was not willing to reveal anything specific, but plans to be a “good listener.”
“I intend to sit down with people from the community, people from the business community, people from the commission to to go over the recommendations,” Balderrama said.
Balderrama was referring to the city’s Commission on Police Reform, which recommended 73 policy changes ranging from the type of calls police should handle to the department’s hiring practices.
As he said in his introductory news conference, Balderrama agrees with some, but others will be harder to implement.
“There should be accountability. We should identify areas that police respond to, certain types of calls that maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe it should be other professionals in other fields. So, I do believe there is some low hanging fruit there as far as things that make a lot of sense that could be implemented very quickly,” he said.
‘Defund the Police’ Movement
Balderrama says he’s willing to engage with anyone in the community, even those who have called to defund the police. He hopes he is given the benefit of the doubt since he is an outsider and a Fresno newbie.
“I think that’s a good thing because there’s not an instilled culture in me. I’m coming from from a totally different part of the country. So it’s a first look. It’s a fresh perspective. It’s open dialog. The way I look at it, I like to sit down and and get to know them, first of all, so they can trust me. But second of all, I want to to learn with what their ideas are.”
He calls the defund movement “misguided.”
“If we went across the country and just defunded every police department, it would not be good. And you’ve seen that now in places like Portland, Chicago and Seattle, where crime, violent crime has skyrocketed and they got fewer police officers. And and it’s not good for the city. It’s not good for the community as a whole, is not good for business. So so that’s the mistake,” Balderrama said.
He believes the movement has brought attention to what additional resources could be used instead of police officers to improve the community.
Use of Deadly Force
Balderrama says sometimes police have no choice but to use deadly force, but he is in favor of providing training to help reduce police shootings.
“(Officers) have the right to defend themselves. They have the right to go home to their families at night. Other areas that we can really work on is just the training of how we can de-escalate situations which have that option,” Balderrama said.
“If we have time, (if) we have distance from from the offender, if we have cover where the officer is safe, then we can try other techniques like de-escalation, talking to the person, trying to diffuse the situation, so you’re not put in a situation where you have to use deadly force,” he said.
WATCH: Balderrama on Policing in the COVID Era
At his introductory news conference, Balderrama said COVID is affecting the way police departments operate.
This week, the Fresno City Council discussed imposing fines for gatherings at private homes of 15 or more. The goal was to discourage the spread of COVID.
Current Police Chief Andy Hall publicly said he would not enforce the order, if it was enacted (the City Council later tabled the proposal).
Balderrama tends to agree.
“Is it the job of a police department to go door to door during Christmas to make sure that there’s 15 people or less or whatever? Not necessarily,” Balderrama said.
He said that responsibility should fall toward the city’s code enforcement department (which is under the city attorney’s office, controlled by the City Council).
Balderrama would rather focus on violent crime in the city, but would have police back up code enforcement if needed.
But he agreed with those who say Fresno police officers should wear masks on duty to help prevent the spread of COVID. Council President Miguel Arias recently criticized Hall for not requiring face coverings.
“Whenever they have contact with somebody else, with another person of the public or when (traveling) with riding partners, I believe they should (wear masks),” Balderrama said. “The police officers have to protect themselves. They have to protect their families. They have to protect the public. So wearing a mask, when you have to do your job is a good idea.”
Balderrama’s Humble Beginnings
Balderrama grew up in a single-parent household in El Paso, Texas with his mother Vivi and identical twin brother Beto. They moved to Oklahoma City when he was 16 to be closer to family.
“My mom is somebody who I admire very much. I’ve never met my dad. We had a very happy childhood because there was always love, very disciplined, but there was a lot of love. We were always taken care of. We never lacked anything. It was a good situation to grow up in,” Balderrama said.
The Balderrama family lived on public assistance, with Vivi working as a housekeeper to provide for the family.
“She worked very hard to provide for us, something that obviously I’m indebted to her for that,” Balderrama said.
Balderrama did not learn English until he was five-years-old. Spanish is his first language. He demonstrated his bilingualism at his first news conference, answering questions in both languages.
After graduating from high school, Paco and Beto Balderrama worked as detention officers at the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department and moved to the Oklahoma City Police Department in 1999.
Beto is currently a captain with OCPD, but Paco says he is likely to remain there.
“When you’re that close to somebody, you don’t have to be close physically because we’re close on a relational level,” Paco said. “His place is there in Oklahoma City. And apparently my place is going to be Fresno, California. So here I am.”
Coming to Fresno
Balderrama rose up the ranks in law enforcement. He joined OCPD as a captain in 1999. He was promoted to major in 2017 and deputy chief last year.
He said headhunters reached out to him for other jobs, but he only applied for Fresno’s opening.
“I just felt that I’ve got what it takes to be the leader at a major department,” Balderrama said.
He reached out to law enforcement friends in the Valley, many whom he met at the FBI training academy.
They had good things to say about Fresno and he applied.
“All the stars aligned for me I really believe that God opened the right doors. It’s no coincidence that that my contacts, who I trust, are from the Valley, even though I’ve never been to Fresno before. So I thought, you know, I’m going to I’m going to throw my hat in the ring,” Balderrama said.
Among those he sought advice from include Reedley Police Chief Joe Garza, Hanford Police Department Captain Karl Anderson, Kings County Assistant Sheriff Dave Putnam, and Ceto Ortiz of the California Highway Patrol.
Balderrama was in town this week for the announcement and to be officially certified under state policing standards. He said he aced the written portion and was headed out to the shooting range.
His first day on the job is Jan. 11. He’ll have a one week overlap with predecessor Andrew Hall.
The Interview Process
Balderrama was one of eight people GV Wire℠ identified that were semifinalists for the position. He met three times with interview panels — virtually — to talk about becoming the next police chief.
Mayor Lee Brand engaged with the community at several public meetings when the search process began in 2019 — when the city appointed veteran Andy Hall as chief, though Hall hadn’t applied.
This time around, there was no public outreach. Brand tasked a search committee to interview candidates, also a feature of the prior search. City councilmembers Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza and Mike Karbassi were among those who interviewed Balderrama.
“I was really impressed by how diverse the panels were. You had a city council person on each panel. You had community leaders, you had activists, you had advocates, you had business owners,” Balderrama said.
Balderrama was a finalist along with Dallas Police Department Major Malik Aziz and Fresno Police Department Deputy Chief Mark Salazar.
They were interviewed in person in Fresno, a one hour, 45 minute inquiry asking 20 questions.
Unlike his future boss, former police chief and Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer, Balderrama does not plan to intervene in local politics.
A registered Republican, Balderrama calls himself “a very nonpolitical person.” Unlike Dyer, he doesn’t plan on making candidate endorsements.
“I believe the position of chief of police should be apolitical. I strongly believe that. My job is to keep the citizens safe. My job is to run the police department. My job is to help improve trust between the police department and the community,” Balderrama said.
He calls his personal politics “middle of the road.”
“On a lot of moral issues, I tend to be conservative. On a lot of social issues. I tend to be a little bit more liberal,” Balderrama said.
Family Staying Behind for Now
Balderrama was in town three weeks ago to find housing. But, his family will remain in Oklahoma City through the end of the school year.
“I think it’ll be tougher on me because I’ll be here in the new city without my family. I’ll fly back on occasion to make sure that they’re OK,” Balderrama said. “But it’s good and it’s bad. It’s very good because I get to dive in and I get to learn the job full speed ahead, hundred miles an hour. But it’s bad because I’ll be here by myself. So so that’ll be a challenge for me, but it will help me get acclimated.”
The ages of his children — his daughter Hayden, 10, and sons Jude, 8, and Jenson, 7 — was another reason he will bring them halfway across the country by summer.
“They’re young and they’re excited, but it’s not as as dramatic or big of a deal to move them now. Now, if they were in high school or junior high, it’d be a lot more difficult to make this move,” Balderrama said.
His children just returned to in-person classes after months of virtual school.
Balderrama said he was close to securing a temporary townhouse to live in. He will defer to his wife of 11 years, Kyla — a teacher — for a permanent decision.
“That’s the compromises that she gets to pick as far as house style. That’s very important to her, not as important to me,” Balderrama said.