Marilyn Diaz has spent almost four decades in law enforcement, including five years and nine months as the chief of the Sierra Madre Police Department. She's faced everything from bullets to sexism to lawsuits.
Thursday was her last official day as chief, and if the packed boxes and nameplate jokingly placed on a storage closet indicated anything, it's that the chief still had some work left to do before .
Diaz came to the Sierra Madre Police Department after serving with the Pasadena Police Department for 32 years, earning the rank of commander of field operations. She began her law enforcement career as a reserve officer in Los Alamitos in 1973, then headed to the Pasadena Police Department in 1974.
"I fell into it by accident. I took a class that was called Police Science back then when I was at Cal State LA and just fell in love with it," she said. "I took the whole curriculum ... I was eventually the first female officer assigned to work patrol in the academy."
She sat down with Patch to talk about her career, her time as Sierra Madre's police chief, and what lies ahead.
On her mission and challenges when she got to SMPD:
"Sierra Madre is much smaller, so there are fewer people to take on collateral duties and become subject matter experts. When I was hired, the then-city manager gave me four directives: I was to professionalize the department, increase training, establish accountability and promote community partnership. Those were the overarching goals over the time I've been here."
"Anytime a chief is tacked with implementing change in an organization, there are challenges. Ideally, you bring people together to try to make collective decisions and determine how the changes should be brought about to reach a unified goal. Our vision was to become the model for 21st-century policing. That meant improving all areas of operation. The big advantage of the officers here in a small community is that they know the people, the history, the kids, the family, sometimes even the pets. They are on a first-name basis with everyone. In a small community, the expectation is that police officers are friendly, accessible, familiar and there to help, but at the same time, delivering quality service."
"The No. 1 goal I have as a chief is to develop my people. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing our people, sworn or civilian, develop confidence, a greater competency, and moral courage to do what is right. What I have rewarded in the department is consistently good performance or compassion. I'm doing several department commendations. Desk officer Leslie Kelly, handled windstorm calls by herself -- the barrage of 9-1-1 calls, business line calls, radio traffic and desk traffic by herself until someone was able to relieve her after four hours. When you are tested like that, and do so well, that deserves recognition."
On some of department's changes:
"One of the ways we tried to minimize complaints about officers was to issue officers digital tape recorders, and require that officers activate them whenever they speak to the public about what might be an investigation or enforcement contact. That has been a significant aid in resolving complaints about conflicts. Most importantly, it reminds the officers that they have to act professionally, because they know they're being taped.
"We were singled out along with Irvine and Riverside PD during the recent Fullerton PD death investigation of the homeless man, Kelly Thomas … Sierra Madre was cited as being one of the departments that required the use of audio recorders from its officers. It's a growing phenomenon. This is all part of ensuring risk management.
"We wanted to increase training in several areas, search and seizure, detentions, and also the handling of the mentally ill. There's been plenty of publicity nationwide about unfortunate encounters between people with mental illness and the police, oftentimes resulting in death or an injury. Another area is use of force, including sending the entire department to train with the sheriff's department at their 'laser village' (for tactical training)."
On the police department acquiring Taser guns:
"The first week I worked here, I went on a ride along with an officer at nighttime, and we went out to a call from someone about their violent, mentally ill son. The son was in a back yard, half-naked in cold weather, perspiring, shaking, and clearly going through some kind of psychotic episode. As we were walking back there, the father grabbed my arm and said, 'Please don't kill my son.'
"We were able to take the man's son into custody without any injuries. And later, the man asked me, 'Why don't you carry Tasers?' So one of our officers has volunteered to become a Taser instructor, he's gone to the school and taught our officers how to use the Tasers and also provides updates on the latest models and also on the legal issues involved with using them."
On some of the scariest moments of her career:
"The night following the Rodney King riots, I was working in Pasadena as a sergeant in charge of the neighborhood crime task force. We responded to a call in Pasadena on Los Robles, below Washington. Tensions were high, we get out there and it turned into a shooting match. Over 100 rounds were fired, so our officers just hit the ground. I was at the side of building, and I could see the bullets flying by. I'd never seen anything like that. At least one stray bullet killed somebody, and no one was in a position to fire because you couldn't see where the bullets were coming from, just this stream. That was scary.
"There's was no target. If you have a target, at least you can cover a certain way or move, or do something. You are trained to cover and fire and shoot while you retreat."
"Another shooting I was in ... it was at the Rose Bowl after a drug deal. We told the crooks we were police, they got in a car and drove away, and my partner and I were the lead officers, and they shot at us in the dark. I called for a helicopter, its lights were out so they couldn't help us. We eventually caught them and nobody got hit. My partner was firing guns as he was driving, and I'm trying to get my seat belt on because of the curvy roads. I could see this orange pop-pop-pop-pop."
On technology and perception of law enforcement:
"The media and the proliferation of crime dramas, especially CSI-type series, has created an expectation in the minds of the public of how evidence is collected and the ease with which prosecution takes place. Clearly that is not realistic. When the officers or detective put somebody in custody, the next thing you hear them say is 'You have the right to remain silent.' No one i know in real life does that. They'd reserve that for a later time and you're not required to do that. Sometimes, even people we arrest say, "You haven't read me my rights!" Well, we wouldn't do that unless we wanted to question you, and we're not going to do that out in the field."
"There are stories about police corruption, misconduct or incidents that have yet to be thoroughly investigated but portrayed in the media as showing that the officers are at fault, even when an investigation hasn't been concluded. Sometimes that creates an impression that officers are more heavy-handed, or in some cases, abusive. with the number of lawsuits, against officers. When officers make mistakes, we try to show what the consequences are for those mistakes."
"Technology has had the biggest impact in the last decade. Our case was the , with EVG being the first three letters of the man's name who opened the gas station. We , and I can tell you, they were terrific."
On SMPD's part in the Robert Matheson case:
"I first learned about the Matheson arrest was on Tuesday, Dec. 13. At 10:30 a.m. that morning, I got an e-mail from somebody I didn't know telling me about Mr. Matheson, who was a Sierra Madre resident, but also had a home in Canada. I looked at the link (to a newspaper article), saw the story, and the captain was sitting a few feet away. I told him, 'This involves a local person, I'm going to send this to you' and to the lieutenant who handles sex offenders. That went to them within minutes.
"Both the captain and the lieutenant followed up diligently and immediately. One talked with attorneys of the state department of justice, who have expertise in Megan's law. The attorney said, 'We need to see the report, we have to see the court documents.' We contacted a local FBI official, we contacted ICE, contacted Canadian officials, the captain spoke to the Canadian prosecutor as well as the investigating officer. All of those things happened one after the other, without delay. We didn't publicize that because it wasn't appropriate to do so. Our goal was to try and find out as much information as possible that we could share with the public, but i wasn't going to share information based on a newspaper link without getting validation. We have been in constant contact with the supervising agent from the Los Angeles office (of DHS and ICE). He has been most cooperative and diligent in following up."
"I asked (the supervising agent) how many tips like the one about Bob Matheson does his unit receive every month? He said dozens … and their office has to prioritize those cases. Perhaps because Mr. Matheson was in custody and was going to be serving time for a couple more months, other cases in which allegations of current child endangerment existed may have taken priority. They look at who is at greatest risk."
"ICE has been wonderful to work with. But it's their case."
On having time off - and architecture:
"I want to travel, catch up on some reading, but I have been involved in rotary. I just joined the Caltech women's club, specifically so I could give historic architecture tours. I love the history, I love the campus, I love the architecture. I have all these architecture books at home. I like to read about styles and history. I thought about (being an architect) years ago. I used to draw homes and buildings … but I wanted to work with people. Architects are usually alone, or work solo."
"I also want to do youth mentoring, take classes, everything from astronomy to economics to English literature. (I want to) garden, bicycle, hike, but most importantly, revisit friends and family I haven't had a chance to spend time with. I can't wait."
On what she will miss:
"Being around wonderful people on a daily basis. I've come to make new friends, and I think, even that, it's tempered because I live a few blocks away. I plan to come by and visit and say, 'Hey guys, i don't have to hear any problems today!' I'm always around to help, but once you're a chief, when you go, you need to clean the slate. In the event of an emergency, I'd be willing to come in and help with anything that they need."