Mark McDermott

A changing of the guard MBPD Chief Eve Irvine is succeeded by Captain Derrick Abell

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MBPD incoming Chief Derrick Abell and outgoing Chief Eve Irvine. Photo by Mark McDermott

First of two parts

by Mark McDermott

Derrick Abell has an image in his mind, a long-ago encounter he has no memory of but is almost certainly happened. In the early 1980s, he was a student at Inglewood High School, a star football player headed for a Division 1 scholarship at Montana State University. Beyond football, he had little idea what his future would hold, but under the tough love tutelage of two decidedly old-school Southerners —  his mother, Virginia Abell, and his head football coach, Bob Hunter —  he was keeping to the straight and narrow. Inglewood was awash in gang violence at the time, but Abell prided himself on being a student-athlete. Everyone who knew him saw a bright future.

Eve Irvine was at the very beginning of her police career, serving as a patrol officer for the Inglewood Police Department, where she would eventually serve 29 years. In a time when very few women served as police officers, her and her partner, also a woman, were known for their tenacity. They lead the department in felony arrests, and Irvine, with her steadiness, hyper-competence, and superior communication skills, was quickly making a name for herself. Irvine was a star on the rise, but still faced skepticism; when she told a superior her goal was to be captain, he suggested that would happen “when pigs fly.”

Abell and Irvine likely intersected at some point in Inglewood, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

“In fact, I’m sure at some point Chief Irvine came across me as an officer in Inglewood,” said Abell. “We crossed paths and didn’t even realize that one day we’d end up here together.”

“Those unnoticed moments,” Irvine said.

Next Tuesday, Abell will be appointed the chief of the Manhattan Beach Police Department, taking the helm as Irvine departs to become chief for the Torrance Police Department. Both made history. Abell is the first African American chief of MBPD; Irvine was the first woman to serve as MBPD chief and only the fourth in the history of LA County.

Neither makes much of the historical significance of their ascendences.

“You know, people have asked me, ‘What does it feel like to be a female police chief? My response is, it’s all I know,” Irvine said in an interview during the last week of her six-and-a-half year MBPD tenure. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a male police chief. So, I’m sure it’ll be for soon-to-be Chief Abell —  we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror and see a woman or an African American male. We just see Eve and Derrick. And so when people ask us that — I mean, I understand the monumental things that people want to bring up, these moments that people want to bring up, but I don’t see that every day because it’s just me. It’s like saying, what does it feel like to be a plumber? I don’t know. I’ve never been a plumber.”

What they share is less about making history and more about a common passion at the very root of their profession: the desire to serve others.

“When we started in this profession I’m sure that every last one of us was just happy that someone felt that we had qualities that could be useful in law enforcement,” Abell said. “It wasn’t about the color of our skin, it wasn’t about the gender. It was whether or not you could do the job, and your professionalism, your ethics, your ability to go out and interact with the community and provide some type of assistance to people out there. Serving others before ourselves I think is what we all thought about… We did it because we want to serve others, and that is what is most important.”

Irvine’s time as chief has been quietly momentous. She took over just six months after the passage of AB 109, a state law meant to address prison overcrowding, which shifted thousands of prisoners from state facilities to counties and in many cases resulted in early parole. Then, in 2013, Prop. 47 changed sentencing, downgrading several crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Both laws, local law enforcement leaders believe, increased property crimes in affluent communities such as Manhattan Beach —  AB 109 by increasing the number of criminals on the streets, and Prop. 47 by reducing the disincentives for property crimes.

“If you are a criminal and you know you are not going to get in trouble for doing a crime, you might as well get the biggest bang for the buck, and try to get the biggest loot you can,” Irvine said. “So yes, we did see an increase in property crimes, including theft. But there again, a lot of the South Bay saw that as well.”

Irvine addressed both problems head-on, holding town halls in which she shared as much information with the community as possible —  including the fact that most of the crimes locally were occurring at homes that were unlocked. The second town hall, in 2013, came months after a local couple was tied, beaten, and robbed in their own home. The community was in a frenzy. Irvine’s calm and professionalism had a palpable effect.

“It was standing room only and people were upset and scared and frightened and didn’t understand what was happening,” Irvine recalled. “And I understood that. I am a citizen of the South Bay as well. They had every right to be frightened and scared due to all the propositions coming up. So we had to address it, and we had to address it honestly, openly, transparently. We did what we can to minimize it. It was a great way for us to interact with the community, and it was a great way for them to see what was going on within the police department. I was able, in an open forum, without giving out operational confidentiality or plans, to explain how we were going to address the increase in property crime and some of those other emerging issues.”

Mayor Amy Howarth was struck by the impact Irvine’s calm demeanor had on the crowds at the town hall meetings.

“What’s great is Eve is really smart, and she just gave everyone all this information,” Howarth said. “She could tell everyone just wanted to better understand what was happening, and why, and her approach was so factual and so strong that it helped calm the community.”

No police chief in recent local history has been more proactive about sharing information with the public. In addition to public forums, she frequently appeared at City Council, where she routinely wore her uniform, not the business suits many chiefs wear in such settings, an indication of her no-nonsense approach to the job.

“Walking into a room of 200 or 300 people, standing room only, before the council, in front of the people who appointed me — you know, I’ve had lighter days, that’s for sure,” she said. “But it’s okay, because that is why I was hired, to address not only the great times and enhance community relations and revisit policy and procedure in the organization, but I was hired to interact with the community and address needs that come about, hard times that come about. To answer; as police chief, you are the face of the organization, and you have to answer to the community you serve. And I had no problem doing that.”

Irvine also implemented the Nixle public alert system for Manhattan Beach four years ago, well before the email and texting public safety notification system became commonly used by local police departments. And as home surveillance systems have become increasingly common, she has urged the community to help its police by sharing as much information as possible.

“I try to tell residents: you are an extension of us,” she said. “One of the things I try to focus on, as well,  is there was a time when the expectation of the police department was you take care of us —  you take care of the issues and we’ll go on with our lives. Well, those days are over. Everybody has to work together now, so the community is an extension for us. What I mean by that is that if there is an opportunity for us to have a tool out there, if there are surveillance cameras on your home…You are now the eyes and the ears of the community. And you heard that saying in the past, ‘See something, say something.’ Well, now it’s ‘See something, do something.’ And that do something is to help us. So if that’s surveillance, or you are at home all day and somewhat have the ability to track what is happening in your neighborhood or on your street, help us out. Be that extension of us. Give us a call.”

The organization she leaves looks very different from the one she inherited. She hired nearly half the 65 sworn officers, appointed one of its two captains, four of its five lieutenants, and 14 of its 20 sergeants. There was a certain type of person she always looked for.

“As the hiring body within an organization, the final hiring authority is the chief, of course — and the things I look for are character, morals, and ethics,” she said. “We hire for character, but we train for skill. I can teach you how to do the job, but I can’t teach you to have ethical values and morals and character. You’ve got to come to us with that.”

“I truly look to see if somebody is malleable but their character has to be there — that has to be above all, especially for a police officer. I have to be secure and safe knowing that when I lay my head on the pillow at 10 p.m. at night that the person who I have given a four thousand pound car to, and a handgun, who has the ability to take someone’s freedoms away, is going to do it prudently and properly within the law. So I have to think the person sitting right here in front of me before they have even gone to a police academy, do they have those qualities?”

Another priority was internal development. She was struck, upon arrival in the department, at how much talent was present. Yet the department had not produced a homegrown chief in 38 years. In Abell, a 27 year veteran of MBPD, she found a prime candidate.

“I identified a lot of talent within the organization and tried to develop as much as I could for various positions within the organization,” Irvine said. “Then at some point, I did recognize that Derrick had the skill set to be the next chief and to succeed me. He had integrity, a great work ethic, he’s very in touch with the community, he’s really in touch with what is going on within the organization itself. I think that under his tutelage, this organization will continue to thrive, and I think it’ll be great for him as well. The organization will flourish under his leadership.”

Her legacy, she said, will be the people she leaves behind.

“That’s something I’m thrilled with,” Irvine said. “You want to leave an organization a little better than you found in…You are the figurehead of the organization, you have to step in during those really tough times. It’s really coaching, mentoring, teaching the organization, and enhancing their skills that they have. I kind of feel like the mother of the organization. I don’t mean that to be like a gender, because you can be father of an organization, but it’s really someone kind of going in and saying, ‘I’m here. This is the way the ship is going to steer, this is the way we are going to go and let’s all get on the same page and do what is best for the organization.’ I have to ensure, as chief of police, that when I leave that the organization is still viable. Sustainability is paramount, over everything. It needs to healthy when I leave.”

Though she makes little note of her role in local history, others believe Irvine’s impact will play out for generations. Councilperson Nancy Hersman, at a ceremony celebrating Irvine in December, noted that little girls growing up in Manhattan Beach now know that they, too, can be chief of police.

“She’s a police officer first and foremost —  that’s what she wanted to be,” Hersman said. “She didn’t want to be this role model, necessarily, but she is. She’s in a profession, just like firefighting, that has few women. So she is a role model —  our kids need to see all genders in various jobs.”

But Hersman said Irvine is a role model beyond gender, as well.

“She just has a confidence about her,” Hersman said. “She may be small, but she’s very confident, and you feel that from her —  when she speaks, you listen, and that is a skill any leader needs to have. That gives the public confidence she has everything under control. And you see the police officers she works with and how much they respect her —  you also have to have that, respect for the person in charge, the chief.”

“She’s a really strong woman,” said Howarth. “I don’t think there’s anything she couldn’t deal with. She was unflappable. Mad respect for her is all I can say.”

Irvine said she will always be grateful for what Manhattan Beach gave her.

“Almost seven years of an extended family, internally, and within the community,” she said. “What a great little community this is — I have never seen a community, to date, that is so supportive of its police department, and police who are so supportive of the community. I always laugh and say I am going to make everyone hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ but it really is that close-knit of a community. It is the perfect recipe.”

The week she became the captain in Inglewood, 20 years into her career, Irvine found a flying pig figurine at a swap meet and hung it in her office. By the time she packed up her office in Manhattan Beach, she’d acquired a small fleet of flying pigs, mostly gifts from people who knew her history.

“Now,” she said, “those pigs will be flying to Torrance.”

Next: Serving others. Also, Capt. Abell will be sworn in at the Joslyn Center at 9 a.m. Jan. 16. Chief Irvine will be sworn in at Torrance City Council at 7 p.m. Jan. 9. 

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