ELK GROVE, Calif. — After 36 years in law enforcement, Robert Lehner has come to think of himself as a “fixer” of police departments in turmoil.
The 58-year-old says he’s drawn to the kinds of management challenges that would make other lawmen shudder — corruption among the top brass in Tucson, Ariz.; officers charged with on-duty sex crimes in Eugene, Ore.; and creating a police department from the ground up in a fast-growing Northern California city.
Seated in his corner office at the Elk Grove Police Department, a quiet room filled with dark cherry-stained wood furniture and lined with wall plaques, the normally reserved chief cracks a smile when he talks about his next potential — and biggest — professional challenge: running a big-city police department that is
under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lehner is one of three finalists to become Seattle’s next police chief, along with former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole and Mesa, Ariz., Police Chief Frank Milstead. Mayor Ed Murray
is expected to make his decision by mid-May.
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Lehner is well aware of the upheaval the SPD has faced since the city entered into a 2012 settlement agreement with the Department of Justice to curb excessive force and evidence of biased policing. His proposed five-year plan for running the department, submitted to Murray, highlights the need to immediately focus on getting the department into compliance with federal mandates.
“Right now, for various reasons, you have a police department in turmoil,” Lehner said of Seattle. “There are a lot of systems and processes in question. The department lacks respect in the community.”
“Tell me that’s not my shiny rock,” Lehner said of the challenge of taking over the department. “It excites me.”
It will require hard work, he concedes, but he believes that within five years the Seattle Police Department should be close to being out from under federal oversight.
“The settlement agreement shows very clearly what the priorities are,” Lehner said. “It’s a big challenge. It’s not without risk. It’s doable, it’s absolutely doable.”
Lehner was born to a military family in Sumter, S.C., and moved several times before eventually settling in Tucson when he was a teen.
After graduating from high school in 1973, Lehner considered majoring in engineering or physical education — he ran track in high school — when a college friend asked him to help her train for the Tucson Police Department fitness exam. She suggested Lehner take the test, too.
He passed both the physical and written exams and joined the department in 1978.
Lehner said he viewed the job as only temporary, but he quickly fell in love with police work. He worked as a patrolman, a field-training officer and a detective in the traffic-accident division. It was in the latter job that he met Diane Bunting, his wife of 30 years, while she worked in the Tucson City Attorney’s Office.
While he was a captain, Lehner said, a fellow captain was involved in a drunken-driving crash, which some members of the department were accused of covering up.
Several officers, including members of the command staff, were demoted in the fallout, according to the Tucson Citizen newspaper.
In the wake of the scandal and command staff shake-up, Lehner was appointed assistant chief in 1998.
“Call it major organizational disruption,” he said.
Eugene beckoned in 2004.
“The (Eugene Police) department needed to be energized, it needed to be modernized and needed to be more professional,” said retired city manager Dennis Taylor, who recruited Lehner to the college town. “He was the most progressive police chief I have worked with in my career.”
When Lehner arrived in Eugene, the city was reeling after two police officers were indicted on a charge of sexually assaulting several women, Taylor said. The department “had been listing without competent leadership for many years.”
Lehner made it his focus to rebuild trust between the community and the police. He did this by enlisting an outside consultant to come in and review the department and by helping create a voter-approved civilian oversight bureau.
“If it’s done right it’s a great way for the community and the people who are concerned about the police to raise concerns,” Lehner said about civilian police oversight.
Lehner made headlines in Eugene after he sparred with the city’s interim police auditor. He once deactivated her city-issued key card to prevent her from entering police offices at City Hall without first knocking on a door.
Under the police structure in Eugene, she did not have the authority under city law to sit in on most meetings at the department, Lehner said, explaining his action.
Lehner also drew criticism in 2008 after someone accused one of his detectives of having an improper sexual relationship with a confidential informant. Lehner disobeyed a city ordinance by failing to immediately notify the police auditor’s office.
However, Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner later said the case merited being kept from public view to protect the informant, according to The Eugene Register-Guard newspaper.
Gardner did determine Lehner’s approach to the sensitive case could have been better handled, The Register-Guard reported. “There was a failure to communicate the facts of the situation to the auditor’s office,” Gardner said.
Looking back on that case, Lehner said he learned lessons about police oversight that would help him as Seattle police chief.
“You are modifying a system,” he said of police reforms in Seattle. “I want to see where there is a fail-safe to deal with the highly unusual case that involves a criminal case. The important thing is to have processes to deal with those issues when they arise.”
When a recruiter contacted Lehner in 2008 to see if he would be interested in running the newly created Elk Grove Police Department, he jumped at the chance to embrace a new challenge.
Elk Grove City Manager Laura Gill said recently that Lehner was her first, and most important, hire.
“He had the police-chief background in Eugene and he had dealt with some really dicey issues,” Gill said. “Bob just had a breadth of knowledge.”
Lehner inherited a department that was only two years old and staffed largely by Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies, a holdover from the days when the city contracted for law-enforcement services.
Gill credits him with creating a cohesive agency with its own standards and protocols.
Elk Grove community activist Connie Conley, considered by many to be the city’s most engaged and vocal resident, says she butted heads with Lehner. Nonetheless, she says he has never “overpromised” or “oversold himself.”
Conley said that when Lehner was hired “he walked into a department where nobody wanted him” because many viewed him as an outsider.
“He is not your typical come in and steamroll over everybody then rule by fear person. This man is very good at reading people,” she said.
Gill calls Lehner “unflappable.”
For his part, Lehner acknowledges he can be direct and abrupt. Should he get the job in Seattle, Lehner says he will need someone in his command staff who is able to smooth out feathers he has ruffled.
“I’m not real touchy-feely and social. I can tell you what’s wrong with you and how to fix it,” Lehner said. “I can hurt feelings. It’s a weakness.”
Crime rates are low in Elk Grove, population 160,000, and largely remained fairly steady since the city was incorporated in 2001. According to FBI statistics, the city did not have a murder last year — compared with 29 in Seattle — and only one in 2012.
The Elk Grove department, with 130 officers, is also much smaller than Seattle’s, which has about 1,300.
The biggest crime to occur during Lehner’s tenure as chief was the March 2011 slayings of two Sikh men, which remain unsolved.
Sacramento attorney Amar Shergill, spokesman for the victims’ families, praised the way the case has been handled by Elk Grove police.
“My civil-rights colleagues here in Sacramento and across the nation have dealt with hate crimes before and across the board, nationally and locally. The response by the Elk Grove Police Department was lauded as being a model for law enforcement,” Shergill said. “There was never a time we felt the police department was working at odds with us or not providing information to us.”
Lehner points to his time in Tucson, a city of more than half a million residents, as providing him with experience in big-city policing. The city had 55 homicides, more than 2,800 assaults and more than 1500 robberies in 2004, the year Lehner left.
“In Tucson I grew up in the system,” he said.
Even as an assistant chief, “once a month I got into a patrol car, pulled off my stars and shagged calls during a shift.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464- 8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan