CHICO, Calif. – After more than three decades of public service, Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien, last week, hung up his hat and retired his badge, with a final day of Friday, June 5, 2020.
O’Brien joined the Chico Police Department in 1992.
Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough recently sat down with the Chief to talk about his career, the challenges and successes encountered and his vision for the future.
Is there ever a moment to step away and retire from a career?
“There is never a good time to leave,” said O’Brien. “But there is a right time to leave and the right time for me is now.”
For 28 year, Chief O’Brien put on the uniform of the Chico Police Department. Over the years, he served in many various capacities as he moved through the ranks.
O’Brien was sworn in as Chief in 2015.
“There is something sobering anytime you raise you right hand and swear an oath to protect others,” explained O’Brien. “It is significant and you don’t take that duty lightly.”
Yarbough asked O’Brien about the many challenges he encountered during his 32-year long law enforcement career. He says there have been many and he does not see that reality changing for fellow law-enforcement colleagues.
The retirement comes at a pivotal moment in the community and the country; a time when the law enforcement profession and the actions of officers are being closely scrutinized.
To the issue of how do and can department address “bad cops,” O’Brien said those individuals are not a reflection of the majority of law enforcement professionals.
"We don't want people that are unsuited for this profession more than the public does.”
How much has the profession changed during the years O’Brien has served? He said the evolution has been continual but believes the past five years, in particular, have seen a massive shift in how the profession operates; in part due to technology; the proliferation of cell-phone video and the use of body cameras.
“It is a tough environment; it's a more challenging environment. And you never want to leave during challenging times but unfortunately I think that it is going to be the landscape moving forward in this city and this country and it's just not going to get any easier,” said O’Brien.
Finding an easy career was not O’Brien’s objective when he joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.
After serving four years with that agency, he joined the Chico Police Department in 1992.
Why choose the law enforcement profession?
“I think all of us get into it because we want to help and I think you want to make a difference; you want to make a difference for your community,” said O’Brien. "For all the things that have made it [the profession] hard, you still have an opportunity to make a better community by the service you provide,” explains O’Brien.
During his tenure, Chief, O'Brien has lead the department through several major crisis in the region, including the Oroville damn spillway and evacuations, the Camp Fire and now a pandemic.
Within the activity of policing, there is continued scrutiny and community anger for the March, 2017 officer-involved shooting death of Desmond Phillips.
The department under O’Brien’s direction has encountered growing social issues of homelessness, street crimes, drug-addiction and taking on the task of crafting community relationships; those items have driven many of the chief's initiatives.
Addressing practical matters, the Chief says he is proud of the infrastructure improvements within the department, including the upgrade of radio and records systems as well as the creation of an online crime portal for the public.
Chief O’Brien also cites success in reinstituting the placement of resource officers on school campuses.
There is one issue, however, O’Brien says he could not contain and it is one that he says is frustrating.
“I have been very clear on my displeasure of the needle distribution program. We want to see people helped,” said O’Brien. “But what we don't want to see in enablement. Enabling that addiction is never something that should be taken as a policy directive by a community because you're doing harm to the individuals and you're doing harm to the community."
But, a man of faith, O'Brien, says he focuses on the successful items.
He says he is confident in the command staff and rank and file of the department.
Deputy Chief Matt Madden; the number-two leader in the department, now takes the helm. Chico City Manager Mark Orme recently named Madden as interim chief.
"There is nothing that can prepare you for sitting in that seat, where you cannot pass blame to anyone else,” said O’Brien. “You have to stand and tell the truth and tell people maybe not what they want to hear but what they need to hear and that's not always easy.”
What comes next for Chief O’Brien?
"My desire in some form or fashion is to help people that are going through crisis; helping them navigate through that. That’s my passion.”