Pacifica police chief retires after 32 years

After 32 years of service, Pacifica police chief Jim Tasa is retiring effective Thursday, the city manager said Tuesday.

A Salinas native, Tasa was working for a lumber company when he decided to give law enforcement a shot.

He said it was almost on a whim that he took the civil service exam. Since joining the Pacifica Police Department in 1982, Tasa has worked his way up from being a patrolman to traffic officer, narcotics officer, sergeant, captain and finally, police chief.

He’s served as chief since 2011, said Pacifica City Manager Lorie Tinfow. Tasa embarked on a mental health services awareness campaign following the shooting death of a Pacifica man in March who had barricaded himself into his home. It was a turning point for him, Tasa said.

After a six-hour standoff, Pacifica officers and SWAT team members shot Errol Chang, 34, who was wielding an ax and stabbed an officer with a knife. Tasa said the incident opened his eyes to the need for greater accessibility for mental health services:

“That’s what magnified for me that the mental health resources are not clearly identified in the community. … You have these people in every community and when it gets to the point when the family doesn’t feel like they can deal with the person, who responds? It’s the front-line patrol officer who responds. They’re not psychiatrists or counselors, and yet they get thrust into these roles.”

Tasa spent the past six to eight months trying to improve residents’ access to mental health services, he said. He participated in forums and engaged with behavioral health and social service workers, along with other first responder agencies, he said, with the goal of training police and fire personnel how to recognize and respond to mental health symptoms when they encounter them in the field.

As part of the effort, Tasa said he also trained officers to help inform and connect residents to local mental health services:

“It’s about what can we do as the law enforcement community to make people aware of all these resources that are out there and minimize us getting to that crisis stage. … As we’re out there (responding to calls), we can give them some literature and hopefully they’ll link into those services and that will prevent or minimize us from getting involved.”

Tasa won the department’s Life-Saving Medal during his tenure, he said, for another case involving a woman who was mentally ill. Police had received reports of a woman trying to drown herself in the ocean. Tasa, along with his partner, dove in with full gear on and pulled her from the water, he said:

“You’re working off adrenaline. You feel like you have an obligation to help somebody.”

Tasa added he wouldn’t recommend going into the ocean with boots, wool clothing, and a gun belt:

“It wasn’t the smartest move. It puts you in a precarious situation with the ocean.”

Mayor Mary Ann Nihart, a psychiatric nurse at the Department of Veterans Affairs, called Tasa’s work in increasing law enforcement awareness of mental health services “outstanding”:

“The fact that even at the end of his long and successful career he is still contributing in such a remarkable way is a testament to his commitment to Pacifica and to our county as a whole. … He really changed the character of the department and reached out to other police departments and changed the character of those departments as well.”

Nihart characterized Tasa’s work on the county level in advocating for more mental health awareness as both “unusual” and “remarkable.”

City Councilman Mike O’Neill commended Tasa for his professionalism and dedication to community policing. “He truly cares,” O’Neill said. “He’s also a genuinely nice guy.”

O’Neill said Tasa set a high bar for the next police chief to meet. Two captains in the department will take turns in that role, with each serving four months to try out for the position.

Capt. Joe Spanheimer will serve in the position until Feb. 28, 2015, and Capt. Dan Steidle will then serve from March 1, 2015 until June 30, 2015, Tinfow said. It’s a strategy Tinfow said worked successfully in her previous role in Walnut Creek.

Both captains joined the police department in 1993 and have risen to the rank of captain. Both hold master’s degrees and have participated in a range of special assignments in addition to their regular duties, Tinfow said:

“Having two qualified internal candidates for the position who are interested in taking on a higher level of responsibility for a period of time is wonderful. … This arrangement saves the city money this fiscal year and also provides an opportunity for officers in ranks below the captains to gain greater experience in interim roles as well.”

As for Tasa, he said he plans to continue working part time as a consultant or project manager, although not necessarily in law enforcement:

“There are some opportunities out there. … But, we need to see what might be a good fit.”