New Hermosa Beach police chief Sharon Papa learns the ropes
When Sharon Papa became Hermosa Beach’s new chief of police in October, she didn’t quite anticipate how much work was involved in policing a 1.4-square-mile town.
“Here you have to do every line item. You don’t have a staff to do that for you,” said Papa, who left her job as an assistant chief at the Los Angeles Police Department to take the Hermosa Beach job. “My colleges at bigger agencies think, ‘Oh you can do that job with your eyes closed.’ They don’t stop to think that at the LAPD I oversaw the budget, I didn’t personally do the budget. We had a staff to do that. At a small agency, you’re doing all those things yourself.”
Papa, 55, was chosen from 47 applicants for a position that has been vacant since Greg Savelli’s resignation in January 2012.
After an extensive interview process, Papa and Cecil Rhambo, a Los Angeles County assistant sheriff, were chosen as the final two candidates.
Former Mayor Kit Bobko stirred controversy by publically throwing his support behind Rhambo before the final two candidates were formally announced.
Shortly thereafter City Manager Tom Bakaly announced his final hiring choice, and Papa was installed as chief.
During her first four months, Papa has realized that Hermosa Beach takes some issues more seriously than others.
“The most frequent phone calls I get are about parking disputes,” Papa said. “I hadn’t thought about the sheer volume of parking issues in this town.
“… When I came here I was more focused on the crowds of people who descend on a beach town, but what I’m finding is that trying to keep people happy and trying to keep neighbors from fighting with each other is a challenge.”
As a rebellious teenager, she left her hometown of Utica, N.Y., and moved to California with a group of friends to get as “far from my parents as possible.”
“It was an adventure to come out here, I loved everything about it,” said Papa. “I was never a winter person. … I went to Hollywood like any star-struck teenager and had an apartment down the street from the Chinese Theatre and worked at Bank of America. I got curious about law enforcement in 1979, and at that time they were aggressively trying to recruit women.”
She was originally hired in Santa Monica and worked up to Metropolitan Transportation Authority police chief.
“I was promoted very quickly,” said Papa, who transferred to the LAPD after the two agencies merged and eventually became an assistant commanding officer.
If she could do anything differently, Papa said, she would have slowed down her career.
“While it’s great to promote and be able to be a decision-maker and shape the future of a police organization, the fun job is when you’re a patrol officer in the field,” said Papa. “If you really want to be a cop and put bad guys in jail, 20, 30 years later when people talk about their career, they’re still telling stories about crazy things that happened in the street, not about the time they had to write personnel evaluation or put a budget together.”
As the Hermosa Beach police chief, Papa has made it a point to join her officers in the field to get a better feel for the city.
“She has a certain touch in the field,” police Sgt. Bob Higgins said. “You wouldn’t know immediately that she was the chief because she has a good street sense about her when she’s dealing with folks.”
Higgins added that the local officers originally had reservations about her because she was coming from a big department.
“But she’s done a fantastic job,” said Higgins. “She’s a plain-talking person and you know what you get when you’re dealing with her.
“Everybody at the department doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her all the time, but she’s an honest, straight-shooting person,” he said.
Recently, Papa has been talking to the City Council about installing security cameras in Pier Plaza.
“It’s interesting, because the security cameras were in the works before I ever got here,” Papa said. “I wanted to say that this wasn’t my idea, but I think it’s a good idea. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone forward with it.”
Papa said security cameras will be a “force multiplier” for her 38-person team.
“When the crowds gather you need a perspective on what’s going on,” said Papa, adding that video would only be used as an investigative tool during special events or emergency situations, such as when looking for a missing child or determining who began a fight.
“It’s a challenging job because everybody wants to tell us how to do it because they’ve seen it on TV, but it doesn’t work like that,” she said. “You can’t break the law to enforce the law, so we have to make sure everything we do is constitutional policing.”
Papa’s immediate priority, she said, is to get to know all her employees and understand their concerns and source new ideas for the department.
Her next challenge is to find five new officers.
“We had some reservations about her … but she’s done a fantastic job,” Higgins said. “She’s realizing that the Hermosa Beach chief does the job of about six different people, so she has to be a jack-of-all-trades.
“I don’t envy her at all, but she’s exceeded my personal expectations,” he said. “For her it’s all about the community and the officer’s safety. All the political wranglings are secondary. We have to take care of our folks, and I appreciate that she understands that.”