WALNUT CREEK -- In his 33 years in law enforcement, retiring police Chief Joel Bryden has faced some particularly high pressure situations.
As a member of the San Diego SWAT team in 1984, he helped take down a man who had killed 21 people -- some of them children -- in a McDonald's restaurant in the middle of the day. He oversaw security for one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the 2003 Super Bowl in San Diego. It was the first Super Bowl after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks where security was not run by the U.S. Secret Service. He attended the big event, but after four months of media interviews before the game, he stopped watching TV.
"I got so tired of seeing myself on television," he said. "It was all about security because it was 16 months after 9/11."
As he ends his professional police career May 23 in Walnut Creek, Bryden is proud of the low crime rate on his watch, and of helping to steer the department during the toughest economic crisis in the city's history.
"If I had to do all 33 years over again, I would do it just the same way," he said.
Bryden, at age 56, retires Thursday, five years since he came to Walnut Creek after a 28-year career with the San Diego Police Department. The timing is right, he said, and it's a good move for the department.
"There is always a boost in any department when there is a change in leadership," Bryden said.
The department has struggled with staffing shortages in recent years, leading to cuts in motorcycle traffic patrols and school resource officers. Hiring more officers has been his focus the last several months.
A Southern California native, he graduated from -- and met his wife Nancy at -- San Diego State. Bryden said he came to Walnut Creek because he wanted to live in Northern California and wanted the challenge of being a chief.
While quite different from his days as a vice officer and overseeing the San Diego SWAT team, Walnut Creek has had its own challenges. He took the helm around the same time the city began to face record shortfalls, and it was Bryden's call to freeze some police positions -- a hard decision in a department where there is "no fluff," he said.
But it also ties in to what makes Bryden the most proud: the people. He credits department staff with an overall drop in crime rate and a safe community, despite the staffing shortages.
"It was outstanding way before I got here and it will be outstanding way after I am gone," he said.
Mayor Cindy Silva said Bryden has done an excellent job.
"Most notably, because of his efforts and the hard work of the department, we are a safer community," she said. "Our crime rate is down, and that is a reflection of his work and the work of his department."
Bryden's ascension to chief is something a mentor of his, retired San Diego police Capt. Lee Vaughn, predicted early on. In the 1980s, Vaughn returned to the department after a 10-year absence and asked then-newbie officer Bryden to be his partner.
"And he said to me 'I have a partner and I can't just leave him,' " said Vaughn, who now lives in Arizona. "I thought to myself ... that is loyalty; that is a good character trait. I just looked at him and knew he was the right kind of a guy."
Bryden has seen controversy during his time as chief. Drunken fights that broke out downtown a couple of years ago left the city and bar owners under fire. Bryden says much of that was media-driven, but he responded by starting a "downtown policing team" which is not currently active because of the staffing shortages.
He points out that even with the city's active night life, there have been no shootings or stabbings.
Police made headlines again in December when they allegedly shot and killed 22-year-old Anthony Banta Jr. after responding to a 911 call. Police say Banta was charging at them with a knife; his family has since filed a $15 million lawsuit. Bryden said he stands by his officers' handling of the incident.
Bryden will retire with a yearly pension around $160,000. In his retirement he plans to travel, spend time with his wife and sons Alex and Miles, and hit the basketball court. Next season he will be an assistant boys basketball coach at Las Lomas High School.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.