After 27 years spent working with the San Mateo Police Department, Dave Norris is now at the helm the Menlo Park Police Department as its new chief.
Over the past two months, he has been quietly settling into a role that was most recently vacated by former chief Dave Bertini, followed by interim chief Dave Spiller.
"I'm thrilled to be here in Menlo Park," he said. "I think the agencies in this county work together better than almost any other in the state ... I'm glad to be taking on a leadership role in an agency in this county."
Norris characterizes himself as a data- and evidence-driven leader, someone who came to the field of policing after playing minor league baseball for a short time.
After growing up on the East Coast he attended Miami University in Ohio before switching to St. Mary's College. His family had moved to the San Mateo area and it quickly became his home.
He had initially planned to attend medical school, but after a brief stint in professional minor league baseball, he began looking for a career that didn't take quite as much time or money to enter. One day his mom, who at the time was also a job seeker, saw an ad for a police service aide in San Mateo, he said.
Intrigued by the opportunity to learn more about the scientific side of policing – forensics and evidence collection – he applied and got his foot in the door in the field of police work. From there, he said, he was encouraged to start exploring other areas of work within the department.
"There was a deep pull from the folks working in the police officer ranks at that department to get somebody like me into a fully sworn officer position," he said.
They encouraged him to take the officer test, and he said he found that the similarities between the scientific method and investigating crimes fit his personality and mind well.
"I was off to the races at that point," he said.
In his 27-year career with the San Mateo Police Department, he worked in a variety of roles, but said one of his primary experience areas has been in teaching and training staff as a coach and mentor.
He also brings experience working as a detective in juvenile matters. As a young officer, he wanted to become a detective, so he took on a juvenile detective position. It wasn't the "sexy crime stuff" that attracts some cops to the role, solving felonies like robberies or homicides. But he made the most of it and now sees the position as "one of the most impactful places you can be in a police department."
Working with youth to help prevent crimes and intervene early in young people's lives helped him appreciate and value earning the trust of families and kids as a way to deter crime, he said.
Norris went on to work as public information officer with the San Mateo Police Department through a transitional time in the field, as information officers pivoted to showing up only "when there was a really crazy scene going on" to the current multimedia approach that police departments now take to interact with the public, presenting information on multiple social media platforms and working regularly with media outlets to communicate with the public.
Norris says he's intent on dismantling Menlo Park's revolving door in the police chief office and bringing stability back to the position.
"I think what the department is looking for is consistent leadership," Norris said. He said he plans to stay as chief for at least five years.
Figuring out how to make the most of a limited budget and staff are also challenges he's planning to tackle, he said. The department has been short a traffic unit and special investigations unit, and its officers are looking for options to keep developing new skills and specialties, he said.
However, traffic units and detective bureaus often require a significant amount of upfront training time, he said. He's interested in exploring other options, like a bike patrol or walking beat with homeless outreach that wouldn't require such deep training that could provide officers with some more variety than the department currently offers.
There are many young officers in the department with between two and five years of experience who are eager to learn and want to know how to do their jobs well, Norris said. To lead them requires not just providing opportunities for growth for those less experienced officers, but for the corporal-level staff members to lead trainings and mentor them, he said.
As communities talk about how to reimagine the work of policing, there are some things that won't change, he said.
"We can't just get rid of armed police," he said, "We are the most heavily armed country in the world. There's a lot of danger out there."
But there are lots of issues that police are expected to respond to that are entangled in realms other than crime, like homelessness, mental health, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress or poverty, he said. In the past couple of decades, police have been tasked with being many people's first point of contact dealing with these issues, he said.
When it comes to responding to calls that have some unknowns around safety and health, it remains common for police to make sure a scene is secure before other first responders to enter it, he said.
Officers have been trained to respond to these types of incidents for decades and undergo crisis intervention training for mental health in particular. San Mateo County hosts a crisis intervention training program with the Sheriff's Office, San Mateo County Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and other experts.
"We're interested in getting those experts closer to directly dealing with some of those problems," he added.
One obstacle, though, is that police officers are expected to respond 24/7 to any call, while those aren't necessarily the standard hours for professionals in other fields, including mental health services.
Norris said that he's looking closely at an initiative taking place within the San Mateo, Daly City, Redwood City and South San Francisco communities to embed mental health clinicians with police departments.
The Menlo Park community had just begun to discuss some of the questions about race and policing that emerged nationwide during the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police in May 2020 when then-police chief Dave Bertini abruptly announced his retirement. The city spent almost a year finding an interim chief, and then a permanent chief, waiting to continue those conversations until a new police chief was hired.
Norris plans to engage with the community to talk about those concerns in the coming weeks and months, he said. Part of the conversations will seek ideas about police responses and how to improve them, whether that's looking for suggestions from other countries or hearing from community members.
There are also legitimate concerns from the community about how "the police can police the police," Norris said. "It is a serious question."
One challenge with complaints the department receives, he said, is that there are laws protecting police personnel and internal records, which limits what can be reported out to the community after those complaints are investigated.
In general, people considering filing complaints may be worried about facing retaliation and wonder whether their complaint will be ignored, he acknowledged.
"We want to create as transparent an environment as possible to give our public the avenue that they feel most comfortable with to give us feedback," he said.
"If there are people who need to be held accountable, they will be held accountable. We need those things to come to us so we can look into them," he said.
As the community continues to move forward with its reopening, Norris said he plans to have conversations with community members throughout the city, listening to their questions and concerns.
One step the the City Council recently authorized for the police department was to add a staff member back who had been working on police records-related matters in preparation for a new law that will begin taking effect in Menlo Park in 2022. Called the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), it will require the department to provide data on every traffic stop, pedestrian contact, arrest or call for service to the California Department of Justice.
The law was first mandated in cities with larger police departments, and Norris said he expects there to be some learning curve as officers get used to recording the new data points from their interactions.
By the time he's been with the department for five years, he said, he's hoping that it will be in a more stable place, teed up to run smoothly for the next 10.
He added that a key message he wants to share is that the work police officers do is not about police violence but rather public safety.
"We are looking out for our community," he said. "The vast majority of what we do when we respond is to help someone."
He said he also sees opportunity for the police department to be more transparent and active in teaching the community about what it dos and how it works.
"I'm doing something that is a culmination of what I have learned and what I have accumulated over the course of my career, and sharing that with the members of this department and members of this community," he said.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to note that under the RIPA, data is reported to the California Department of Justice, not the U.S. Department of Justice.