Lured by a pending legal career and perhaps his own mortality, Robert Nichelini finally made official what has circulated as rumors for months: He's retiring as Vallejo police chief after 17 years, effective July 1.
Nearing 70, Nichelini said it was time to pursue other endeavors. He's expected to practice law part-time in Pleasant Hill.
"I never thought of it as 'I have to retire soon,'" Nichelini said Wednesday. "It's just the way things unfolded. I want the opportunity to try practicing law before I get too old."
Nichelini broke the news to his command staff at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
"It was starting to get out and I wanted to stop rumors," Nichelini said. "I waited until today so I would have a chance to see some of the staff at our regular meeting."
Nichelini said he had not spoken to Mayor Osby Davis or any other City Council members, but said, "I assume" they are aware of his retirement day.
"I have been discussing this with the city manager (Dan Keen) for several weeks," Nichelini said, getting final approval from PERS (public employees retirement system) last Saturday.
Nichelini said he contemplated retiring "about a year ago," but was asked to stay by then interim city manager Phil Batchelor.
"I always assumed I would retire when I was 70," Nichelini said, with a Nov. 29 milestone birthday. "I originally intended to stay until the end of the year."
An eye-opener, however, was the death of retired Lt. Al Lehman of cancer earlier this year at 68.
"It sort of hit me hard," Nichelini said. "He was younger than I am and made me realize that life is short and there is still a lot to do."
Nichelini said any contentious relationships he might have had with any Vallejo City council members did "not really" influence his decision.
"The council sets policy and we try to carry it out," Nichelini said. "I was concerned about the purpose of the public safety committee, but it has actually provided an opportunity to demonstrate what we do and what our limitations are." The ad hoc panel was recently formed to examine how the police and fire departments operate, and recommend policy changes. The committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday night, with Nichelini as one of the presenters.
Budget cuts, Nichelini added, also "have nothing specifically" to do with his retirement decision.
"It was difficult to see many of our best officers leave for other departments and our community service programs eliminated," Nichelini said. "It's like building a beautiful house and watching it being torn down. However, the police still have a responsibility to make it as safe as possible."
Nichelini said his proudest long-term achievement in Vallejo was the police cadet program. Shorter term, "continuing to deliver the best possible police service through bankruptcy and the biggest staff reduction faced by any police department in California.
"I read every day how hard it is for police agencies to do their job after 10 percent staff cuts. We had a 47 percent staff cut."
His most trying moments were the shooting deaths of Officer Jeff Azuar in April 2000, and, last November, Officer Jim Capoot.
"The Vallejo Police Department is a family, and a death in the 'family' hits everyone," Nichelini said. "Jim's death was particularly difficult since I know his wife and watched his daughters grow up."
Though Nichelini would recommend Capt. Lori Lee as his replacement, he hasn't been asked.
Whoever the successor, Nichelini said he or she should "recognize that we have high-quality officers and support staff who are doing the best they can under very difficult working conditions and police service demands. Don't make changes just to say you made changes."
Nichelini was with the Oakland Police Department for 25 years, and was hired by former Vallejo City Manager Walt Graham to run Vallejo's force on Nov. 22, 1994. He succeeded Gerald Galvin, who left to run the Toledo, Ohio police department in June. Nichelini took over on Jan. 8, 1995.
"I remember that I was in a whole new place where I knew no one," he said. "I was out of my Oakland Police 'comfort' zone." In Oakland, Nichelini had served in many roles, was a deputy chief for eight years, and a finalist to become chief of that department in 1992.
In 1994, the year before he arrived, Vallejo had 30 homicides, the city's most violent year.
"Vallejo is an urban city. There's no way in the world police can make Vallejo like Yountville. What you want to accomplish is a feeling of safety," Nichelini said one year into the job.
Also, on his one-year anniversary, Nichelini said that "police work is the kind of job where you can do a hundred thousand things right and you do one thing wrong and you never hear the end of it. That can be frustrating. We're one of the few professions that when you do it wrong, you'll never, ever, hear the end of it."
After graduating from San Francisco State University, Nichelini served four years in the U.S. Air Force in counter-intelligence. Though he entered law enforcement after his military stint, he remained an Air Force reservist until 1996.
In March, 1997, the Vallejo City Council approved of Nichelini doing double-duty as city manager and police chief. Two weeks later, the council rescinded that move because it was "unpopular with the public" who preferred the police chief keeping the one job, according to then-Mayor Gloria Exline.
Later that same year, Nichelini said that he would like to work part-time after retirement, "possibly defending police officers when they are involved in disciplinary matters. I think I could empathize with the issues better than attorneys who haven't been in the police business."
Fifteen years later, it looks as though he'll get his chance. Nichelini expects to start by the end of summer for the firm of Pleasant Hills firm of Rains, Lucia and Stern.
And, Nichelini said, police officers are just as human today as they were Jan. 8, 1995.
"Every officer has good days and bad days," he said. "Including myself."
That includes Wednesday, bittersweet for Nichelini after months of pondering retirement.
"Vallejo is a special place for me," he said. "My father came here in 1925 to work at Mare Island and stayed there until he retired in 1970. Most of my extended family worked at Mare Island. It's always felt like 'home' to me."
Nichelini said retirement was the last thing on his mind when he was first hired here 17 years ago.
"I never really thought about it. My dad retired from Mare Island when he was 65 and I thought he was really old," Nichelini said.