SAN JOSE -- Nine months after suspending a national search for a new police chief amid crime spikes and pay battles with the officers' union, San Jose City Manager Debra Figone said the best person for the job is the one who's been in charge of the department since January.

Figone said late Friday that she's poised to appoint acting Chief Larry Esquivel as San Jose's next police chief, saying the 28-year department veteran has demonstrated a commitment to helping see it through tough times while earning the respect of the ranks as well as the city's leaders.

"I'd love to have him as our chief," Figone said after a meeting with a panel of community members she convened to advise her on the search. "I'm really very impressed with his commitment and the leadership he's shown. He's really impressed me as somebody who really cares about the city right now, and I think that's golden. "

Figone said she still needs to "circle back" with Esquivel about the appointment but believes he will accept.

Esquivel, who leads a department that has shrunk from nearly 1,400 officers in 2009 to about 1,000 now, was not available for comment.

The department in recent years has been beset with low morale as budget shortfalls driven by soaring benefit costs amid a weak economy forced job cuts and the department's first-ever layoffs while crime spiked in what had once been deemed America's Safest Big City. The San Jose Police Officers' Association has been locked in a bitter feud with City Hall over pay and benefit cuts they say are driving cops out of the force.

Amid all this, city leaders agree that Esquivel has done a remarkable job tamping down crime spikes and cracking down on gangs while earning respect from the ranks.

Under San Jose's charter, the city manager appoints most department leaders including the police and fire chiefs, with ratification by the City Council. Figone, who has announced plans to retire in December, said she hopes to bring Esquivel's appointment before the City Council in late November.

Figone had begun a national search for a new chief in September 2012 after Chris Moore announced he would retire from the top post in January, after less than two years.

But after concluding in January that three outside contenders weren't the right fit, she suspended the national search and appointed Esquivel, one of the city's four deputy chiefs, to lead the department until she named a new chief.

"I think he's done an excellent job providing much-needed leadership for the rank and file," said Councilman Pete Constant, a former city officer himself. "He's really been a steady hand at the helm, something greatly needed at the department at this time. He'll make an excellent chief, and I hope he's willing to stay in the position for several years."

City Councilman Xavier Campos agreed with Constant that Esquivel is an ideal candidate.

"Larry's a perfect example someone who's come up through the ranks and understands our needs here in our city from a public safety standpoint," Campos said.

But Councilman Ash Kalra said it is a sad state for the city that it seems unable to attract chief candidates nationwide.

"It's nothing against Larry, he's doing a good job under the circumstances," Kalra said. "But since when does the city of San Jose not seek the best of the best? To abandon a nationwide search process speaks volumes about where we've come as a city."

Since taking over, Esquivel's term has seen a largely effective summer-long crackdown on gang activity following a string of gang slayings. He also resurrected the gang suppression unit.

There was some controversy at the beginning of his term when he suspended the outgoing chief's requirement that officers collect demographic data when they detained suspects on the street, particularly the act of "curb-sitting" suspects.

The program was finally rolled out last month after the department addressed concerns from rank-and-file officers that it would discourage proactive policing.

Even so, officers continue to leave the department.

"I hope in the coming days we can find out a little more about the search process that went into this decision," said Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association.

The city's independent police auditor, former Judge LaDoris Cordell, sat on the community panel that interviewed four candidates in the previous search for a chief that came up empty. She said there was "fatigue" with the process and that Esquivel is a fine choice.

"He's been tested," she said. "You can't be tested harder than this, going through these challenging times."