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Dinse’s first year a balancing act

S.L. police chief unifies force, wins respect

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After one year in Salt Lake City, Police Chief Rick Dinse seems to have walked the tightrope of public sentiment with the ease of a Peking Acrobat.

You'll have to search long and hard for anyone who'll say something bad about the silver-haired former Los Angeles cop who marked his one-year anniversary as Salt Lake's police chief last week.

In that time, Dinse seems to have unified a police force rife with division because of the iron-fisted rule of his predecessor, Ruben Ortega.

Dinse emerged from a bitter contract dispute between Salt Lake's mayor and police association with nary a scratch and has won the respect of many minority leaders for his willingness to discuss traditionally thorny subjects such as racial profiling and diversifying the city's predominantly white police force.

He's impressed Olympic planners with his knowledge and skill in preparing security plans for the 2002 Winter Games and continued to build a working relationship with the District Attorney's Office that, arguably, is unparalleled in other police agencies around the valley.

He hasn't hesitated to discipline his officers, yet many rank and file police praise him for his fairness.

Yes, if you're looking for something truly detestable in Dinse, you'll have to stay tuned. For now, his understated, no-nonsense approach has endeared him to many in the city.

"I would say if I was giving him a report card I would give him an A," said Archie Archuleta, the mayor's assistant administrator for minority affairs.

Perhaps Dinse's biggest shortcoming since being sworn in as Salt Lake's top cop last August has been his struggle to diversify a traditionally white police force.

"I do hear from (Hispanic) police officers that they need more diversity and they're not moving up the ranks," said Ana Archuleta, a local Hispanic activist who's spoken with Dinse on improving the hiring and promotion of minority officers.

More than 89 percent of the 410 sworn officers in Dinse's department are white, with one minority captain, one minority lieutenant and five minority sergeants. All four of Dinse's assistant chiefs are white.

Despite meetings with Hispanic leaders and media and recruiting trips to California and Texas, the racial makeup of Dinse's department has changed little since he was sworn in last year. Since then, the percentage of Asian officers rose slightly from 4 percent to 5 percent of the force. The percentage of sworn officers who were Hispanic (4 percent), Black (1 percent) and American Indian (1 percent) essentially remained the same.

Dinse admits those percentages need to be more in line with 2000 Census numbers, which indicate Salt Lake City's population is 18 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, 2 percent black and 1 percent American Indian. But drawing qualified candidates from a city with a 79 percent white population isn't always easy.

"We are in a relatively homogenous area," Dinse said.

Despite those discrepancies, most Hispanic leaders credit Dinse for at least trying to change the trend. They also commend Dinse for his department's plan to establish a police substation on the city's west side.

And while Hispanic leaders say many in their community still perceive they're stopped more often because of their race, they also credit Dinse for his willingness to openly discuss such volatile topics.

"He was committed to those issues," Archuleta said. "He seems to be very approachable."

Many officers say they've noticed similar openness to new ideas and suggestions — a stark contrast from the previous administration.

"It's my impression that Chief Dinse doesn't look at us as underlings, he looks at us as fellow employees," said officer Mike Tuttle, legislative chairman for the police association. "Ortega did good things for the police department, but he did nothing for the police officers. He had an agenda. The only agenda I can see from Chief Dinse is doing the right thing for everybody."

That hasn't always been easy. Dinse's officers have already drawn public criticism for shooting and killing two people in the past year. One officer was suspended two days without pay for violating department policy in one of the shootings.

But Mayor Rocky Anderson, who hired Dinse from a pool of 56 applicants, credits the chief with making sure his officers are trained to use deadly force only as a last resort.

"He is anything but trigger happy," Anderson said. "He's very careful and wants to make certain that our officers always conduct themselves properly and with due restraint."

Since taking over, Dinse hasn't hesitated to fire or suspend officers he felt weren't up to standard. Dinse takes his department's policies very seriously and admits he's even suspended officers for swearing in public.

Yet somehow, Dinse's stern but fair leadership has boosted morale among officers who had become increasingly suspicious and critical of Ortega.

It's hard to argue with a police chief who'll go out in full uniform at 4 a.m. and meet his officers at routine calls, as Dinse did just last week.

"My wife often accuses me that my hobby is police work, and she's probably right to a degree," Dinse said. "With all that I ask of the people working for me . . . I think I owe them a lot of my time and energy."

Dinse has given that same time and energy to ensure his department's relationship with local prosecutors allows for open communication and cooperation.

When he took over for Ortega as interim chief, now Assistant Chief Arthur "Mac" Connole began meeting with District Attorney David Yocom and his senior staff once a month. Dinse has continued that tradition. The regular meetings have resulted in a drop in officer absences from testifying in court, Yocom said. Dinse's increased focus and resources in his department's traffic division have also improved the quality of accident investigations, Yocom said.

Police and prosecutors are also working on an e-mail system to subpoena officers to testify over their car-mounted laptop computers. The system is less cumbersome than the paper delivery method and allows police to immediately acknowledge they've received the notice.

Yocom says the regular meetings with Dinse and his staff have helped curb potential problems between police and prosecutors that have previously divided the two sides.

"I wish I could say something bad about him but I can't," Yocom quipped. "In all the times I've been involved as a line prosecutor in the office as well as being the boss, I think (the relationship between police and prosecutors) is better than it ever has been."

"He just has that skill to bring people together," said West Valley City Police Chief Alan Kerstein, who worked under Dinse for several years in Los Angeles.

It was there that Dinse worked closely in developing security plans for large-scale events like the 1984 Summer Olympics and 2000 Democratic National Convention.

After a few short months in Utah, Dinse became an active participant in public safety planning for the 2002 Winter Games. He currently serves as vice commander of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command. Under his watch, the command has developed and started training a mobile field force to help control crowds and protestors during the Olympics.

"Chief Dinse came in at a tough time; not only was he taking over a police department, but he had to immediately become involved with the Olympics," Olympic security coordinator David Tubbs said. "I think he's managed to do both of them in an extremely commendable manner."

Dinse says he relishes the challenge the Games provide and is confident the security measures being taken will keep the focus of the Olympics on the athletes and festive atmosphere.

Dinse also scoffs at rumblings from some that he'll bolt Salt Lake after the Olympics.

"That is absolutely false," he said. "I don't have any applications out, and I don't have any expectation of jobs in other places."

Some of that talk, Dinse says, is likely fueled by the fact that he still lives in a downtown apartment three blocks from his office and hasn't bought a house yet. His wife remains in Los Angeles during the week and tends to their home there while she finishes up the final 1 1/2 years before her retirement as a secretary with the LAPD.

"I expect to be here as long as they'll have me," Dinse said.

Anderson, who vowed to fire Ortega during his campaign for mayor, doesn't plan on getting rid of his current chief any time soon. The two don't always agree, but so far they seem to get along.

"I'll keep him absolutely as long as he's willing to stay and as long as I'm in office," Anderson said.

Looks like Dinse might be on that tightrope for awhile.


E-MAIL: djensen@desnews.com