Officer-involved shooting Oxnard chief's 'biggest challenge ever'

The call came in at 10:22 on a Saturday night.

As she normally is at that time, Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams was asleep. After all, being responsible for roughly 400 sworn and civilian employees and an annual operating budget of more than $50 million can be a tiring job.

It was the call every police chief hates to get: There’s been an officer-involved shooting.

When the details emerged, Williams, 47, had a particularly ugly OIS on her hands: One of two men killed in a shootout with officers after they fled following a traffic stop turned out to be a man uninvolved in the incident.

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office continues to investigate the double-shooting, as well as the Office of Independent Review and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. The D.A. is also looking into another Oxnard OIS that happened in mid-August. In that incident, police shot and killed a 36-year-old man they said was waving a gun in a threatening manner.

When Williams got the call about the Oct. 13 double-shooting, she had an immediate thought:

Own this.

For the veteran cop who spent 22 years in law enforcement in Arizona before being named Oxnard’s first female police chief in January 2011, the shooting would prove to be her biggest challenge ever. But, with a philosophy she urges all chiefs to have, she knew she had to “get in front of the story” and be as transparent as possible with the public and her own P.D.

“If you don’t make the decision to be transparent,” Williams says, “someone will make the decision for you.”

Adds the chief, 47: “When things are going well, it’s important for me as chief to put the officers out in front to take credit. When things are going bad, my job as leader of this department is to say, ‘Look, we made a mistake.’’’

That’s what Williams copped to at a news conference assembled soon after the double-shootings, which prompted protests in the historically troubled La Colonia section of the city.

In recent years, the Oxnard P.D. has made efforts to reduce crime in the predominantly Latino neighborhood through community policing and other outreach programs. Beat officers and a sergeant have been permanently placed in a storefront office in La Colonia.

Still, tensions soared in the wake of the killing of an innocent bystander.

Williams offered several lessons gleaned from the Oct. 13 shootings.

For starters, she said, it’s vital to “invest in the trust bank of the community before you have to make a withdrawal.” As she explained, police chiefs should make a conscious effort to reach out to all factions of the community before anything like an OIS occurs. Establishing a Chief’s Advisory Board – which Williams did soon after becoming police chief – also is vital.

After the Oct. 13 shooting, among the many things Williams did was call members of her advisory board, which includes a broad mix of people including faith-based and business leaders.

“That was one of the best investments ever,” Williams said. “It really paid off.”

She also called, for guidance and advice, several police chiefs she befriended shortly after taking the top job at the Oxnard P.D., including Jacqueline Seabrooks in Santa Monica, Phillip Sanchez in Pasadena, David Maggard in Irvine, and Ken Corney in Ventura.

“I’m very grateful and thankful for the networking established with CalChiefs,” Williams said. “Being able to reach out to other chiefs helped do a couple of things: It validated some of my decision-making, such as being as open as possible with the public, and it provided me with suggestions about what to do next.

“My fellow police chiefs gave me direction and peace of mind, and helped me through the process.”

Williams says she not only acted quickly after the shootings to establish trust with the public, but also within her own ranks.

“This affected the entire department,” she says. “It’s vital to be transparent about what we are doing with line-level employees. It’s important never to forget that in addition to being a police chief, I’m also a cop.”

Williams calls the recent shootings in her city tragedies for all involved, but is hopeful that when all of the facts are analyzed and brought into the light of day, the city of Oxnard – and its police department – will be better off because of what happened.

Says the chief: “Something good is going to come out of this.”

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