LIVERMORE -- Of all the lessons Livermore Police Chief Mike Harris learned during his 20-plus years with the Modesto Police Department, the most poignant, he says, was the value of community engagement.
Harris, who spent his first official day as Livermore's top cop on Aug. 19, has already begun to carry over that lesson into his new duties.
"The last thing I want to do is make broad, sweeping changes right off the bat," Harris said. "I want to get to know people ... By building relationships, you build trust so you can keep small problems from becoming big problems."
Harris, 44, was born and raised in Modesto and started his law enforcement career in 1990 in neighboring Oakdale. After 10 months, he joined Modesto's force, working his way up the ranks to captain. Along the way, he manned the Crimes Against Children unit as a detective, served as an Internal Affairs sergeant and SWAT team commander and, lastly, headed the department's Operations Division. During his tenure, the city endured severe financial difficulties and high unemployment, leading to problems with drug and gang crimes.
"Because of the issues and challenges (in Modesto), I can say I've been there, done that," Harris said.
That's not to say Livermore is without issues of its own, Harris said, including signs of gang activity, public nuisance crimes and graffiti. Like former Police Chief Steve Sweeney, Harris is a firm believer in Neighborhood Watch programs and intends to continue the community policing programs of his predecessor.
Livermore City Manager Marc Roberts said residents shouldn't expect any "dramatic changes" to the department, save for "adjustments" to organizational structure and internal policies. Roberts made the job offer to Harris, who had never tested for a chief position until he applied this spring. He beat out nearly 40 other candidates.
"Modesto has struggled with some of the same issues we're facing," Roberts said. "Having experience in dealing with those issues was certainly an advantage."
Roberts said Harris rated highly in interviews with city staff, department heads and other panels, and that he personally regarded Harris as a good communicator, personable and with an eagerness for the work.
"One of the things we were looking for was someone who was enthusiastic about Livermore," Roberts said. "That's a great quality to have; it will lead to a happy job and a happy chief."
Harris isn't a total stranger to the Tri-Valley area; his wife, Andra, was a teacher at the San Ramon Valley Christian Academy in Danville. Scoping out the area, the Harrises "fell in love" with Livermore; the new chief admiring how city leaders weathered the financial storm.
The recruiting process has begun for as many as eight vacant police positions, and Livermore has netted three new officers in 2013, restoring the city's Drug and Gang task force and leading to a number of arrests.
"Things are still tough, but overall, we're on the right track out of the recession," Harris said. "By being good stewards of the public's money, we're in fairly good shape."
Harris, who will earn an annual salary of $177,375, has five children. Besides spending time with family, he enjoys watching baseball, fishing, hiking and spending time at his family's home in the Sierras. Though he's yet to get completely settled in, Harris is already putting his stamp on Livermore.
"We need to work smart, use technology to our advantage and staff our departments effectively," Harris said."We need to be nimble, flexible and adaptable to change, because that's what crime does."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.