Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero reflects on first year, says community involvement his biggest success

Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

One year into his position, Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero said he’s had to learn how to do police work “with a lot less.”

Romero, who was sworn in as chief on June 4, 2019, was a lieutenant at the Hawthorne Police Department in California, which has a population of nearly 87,000, before coming to Ontario.

He has faced a “resource scarcity” in Ontario.

“One of my biggest challenges is, you know, slowing it down, trying to realize that I can’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘I need 20 cops,’ or realize that I don’t have, you know, X amount of officers working at any given moment that I can reallocate and redirect throughout the day,” said Romero.

Currently, the Ontario agency has 23 officers, Romero said.

“My philosophy is do different with less versus trying to do more with less,” said Romero.

Because of the limited money and people, Romero said his officers have to serve several roles. He said when he started at the police department, 89% of the police personnel were assigned to uniform patrol.

“The problem is of those 89%, they serve as a first responder,” said Romero. “They serve as a detective, they serve as a criminal case filing agent, as a follow-up investigator. They have to do it all.”

Further, Romero said officers are constantly being requested for functions and events, and the community “wants law enforcers to be mentors, educators, mediators, social workers.”

“And in our type of business, you have to have a break, or you run the risk of not only burnout, but PTSD and other medical ailments that are real and specific to policing,” said Romero.

But Romero’s vision for the police department, which is split into three pillars, remains clear — “train them up,” “staff them up” and “gear them up.” As far as increasing staffing goes, Romero said he has made “some progress.”

“I doubled the amount of detectives by a whopping one,” said Romero. “We had one detective. Now we have two. My goal is if I can get additional staff, I will be able to create other essential police service divisions within the agency for everything from a serious, violent crime impact to traffic, to community engagement, community affairs or community policing.”

Romero said he’s focusing on training officers in areas that “benefit them as individuals and benefits us as an organization.” In order to “gear them up,” he said he wants to ensure officers “have the tools to be able to do their job properly.”

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said Romero has been a strong advocate for ensuring his police officers have the equipment they need.

“Our officers didn’t have shields for long rifles and that’s something we’re in the process of acquiring that he pitched and sold because, you know, they just don’t have protection from that,” said Brown. “And that’s a little scary.”

However, many of the challenges Romero faced during his first year came from outside the department in the form of an inherited legal matter, Black Lives Matter protests and slanderous comments.

In 2018, Brown said the Ontario City Council created a policy to require police officers to live in the community, which was challenged by two police officers. The city recently settled with the police union, waiving the requirement and compensating one of the officers.

Romero said the situation put him “between a rock and a hard place” since he had no part in it and couldn’t get involved since it became a legal issue, so he had to remain neutral.

“I took the true neutral stance, and I do what I like to do, and that is lead from the front and just continued to treat everyone as best I could and hope that they would realize that, you know, unfortunately this chief didn’t really have a whole lot of say so in it,” said Romero. “And, you know, not to hold it against me.”

Ontario police union president Chris Bolyard declined to comment about the police chief’s first year.

On June 4, a Black Lives Matter protest was organized in Ontario due to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis in late May.

Last week, Romero came under criticism for remarks reportedly made by City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez and recounted in a court filing. The remarks were cited by a woman as part of her request for a restraining order against Rodriguez, attributing to him remarks that Rodriguez said Romero’s officers do not respect him, he was an “[expletive] from California” and was “racist against (Rodriguez’s) type of Mexican.” Rodriguez last week disputed all the claims in the filing.

But Romero said he doesn’t “mind a challenge here and there.”

“I’m used to having dirks, daggers, bottles and rocks thrown at me and slanders just cause I’m a police officer,” said Romero. “But I counter it through my actions, my proven commitment to our community and anybody that’s been around me for any amount of time knows that I am truly a people person, and I am truly about improving my community.”

However, he said he was still “disheartened” by what was said about him and his department.

“I just don’t see our department that way and I’ve not experienced anything that is indicative of what was written,” said Romero. “I mean everything from the slanderous comments to the allegations of a corrupt police department, because I’ve neither seen it or experienced any of that.”

In regards to the Black Lives Matter protest, Ontario Mayor Riley Hill said he sat in during Romero’s organizational plan for the protest, and Romero is “open to suggestions and looking at things.”

“He had a pretty good understanding of the situation and did not want to have any kind of heavy hand and minimal presence and that all worked out fine,” said Hill. “And I’ve got to commend him for a meeting with the leader of the deal.”

Despite the setbacks, Romero said his biggest success has been connecting with the community, which he has done in a variety of ways. His first month on the job, Romero launched the Cobras Wrestling and Development Club, which uses wrestling to mentor and tutor youth and give them a chance to consider public safety professions.

In addition, Romero is a volunteer coach for the wrestling program at Ontario High School and helps run the Ontario Animals Youth Wrestling Program. He is also on the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Treasure Valley, on the steering committee for the Treasure Valley Community College athlete mentorship program and a member of the Ontario chapter of the Kiwanis International Club.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Romero said he was also “very active” with the American Legion in Ontario, which was where he gained “much of my community knowledge from and was able to reciprocate support to our areas military veterans.”

He also created “minute with the chief” on the police department’s Facebook page, which he uses as “a platform for good two-way discourse on everything from concerns to just good information being pushed out.”

Part of Romero’s “year-two strategy” is establishing a citizen-led police chief advisory council, which he said will consist of 11 to 13 volunteers from the community, which will be coming in the “next fiscal year.”

“It will not be a regulatory authority,” said Romero. “They will not have any control over, you know, like my budget, stuff like that, but it is going to be an advisory council that I can lean on for good suggestions, recommendations and feedback as to what is truly taking place in our community and what our community not only needs but wants from its police department. So it’s basically a community governance program.”

Hill said even though Romero came from a “varied background” and a “larger area where policing was a lot different” he feels Romero has done a great job immersing himself in the community.

“Overall, he seems to have adapted pretty well and certainly has involved himself in many community affairs,” said Hill.

Brown echoed that Romero’s connections in the community was a success.

“His big passion is involving the community in policing, different from community policing,” said Brown. “Community policing, you know, relies on certain cops having certain beats and stuff, but his idea of community is that everybody helps the police department to maintain themselves and keep their own community safe, empowering them to keep their own community safe.”

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected]


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