Jennifer Gonzales Takes the Reins as Police Chief
By Kathleen Reynolds
“Integrity is key in being a police chief or for any law enforcement position,” says Napa’s Police Chief Jennifer Gonzales. “We all must project a standard above minimum. The public expects and should receive superior service. I ensure that our officers know what is not tolerated. I make it clear that’s not on my watch. The leaders in our department, and I don’t mean by rank, push to be greater, not average. I prefer that we’re all making good decisions.”
Jennifer, which is how she introduces herself, says she had a sense and appreciation for rules and order as early as grade school. When she was a junior in high school, she took part in a program called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which matched high school students with people in different professions for a day.
“I was paired with Lucy Carlton, the police chief of Los Altos. Although I was too young for a ride-along in a patrol car, I got hooked. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. She came to my swearing in as a Napa police officer and came again when I was sworn in as chief. I’ve had (law enforcement) mentors all my life who took me in and guided me.”
She became a community service officer at CSU Chico for two and a half years, then joined the Police Academy. When she started applying to police departments, the process was competitive with few openings and many applicants. Chico’s police chief “took a chance” and hired her. She worked there in several roles for 20 years.
Among her many educational accomplishments, she has a master’s degree in Behavioral Science: Negotiation and Conflict Management from CSU Dominguez Hills and a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies from CSU Chico. Jennifer also was part of the 271st class of the FBI National Academy.
“My biggest surprise and disappointment now are the lack of people who want to join this profession. I can understand and justify the reasons; there’s more money elsewhere, other jobs are less dangerous, and so on. There are many alternative law enforcement positions, though. We need dispatchers and community service officers.”
Napa City Manager Steve Potter worked for 31 years with the Napa Police Department and spent three years as police chief. He agrees that staffing the department is a primary concern now. “This is a challenging time for recruiting people into a law enforcement profession. Communities have so many needs—mental health, the ability to have civil conversations, homelessness, changing laws and so on, and not everyone is willing to or able to do the job. Keeping positions filled and adding to our depth of quality officers is a number one priority and a challenge.”
We asked what he felt were the qualities of a good chief. “A police chief needs to have strong morals and ethics, a community caretaker attitude, a vision of what community needs will be and where policing in America is going,” states Steve in an email. “The chief should be able to work with all people have the leadership skills needed to lead a diverse group of officers and professional staff through critical situations, disasters and through normal daily activities in the community they serve.”
“Jennifer shows a great deal of care and compassion for the employees in her charge and the members of the community. She is highly educated and has a community service mindset. She possesses the skills and abilities to handle the job.”
“In Napa, we are blessed,” Jennifer says. “Many community members know officers by name. They live here, their children go to school here, they are coaches, scout leaders, they stop by block parties. The community shouldn’t know the officers by just their title.”
“This area also has a tightknit group of chiefs and sheriffs who work together with probation, the college and upvalley, all ready to take on common concerns.”
Napa isn’t without its problems, though, some of which we may associate only with big city life.
“The two biggest concerns are Fentanyl and ghost guns,” says Jennifer. “Using drugs recreationally leads to overdosing and death. The whole family is impacted. In part, it’s a mental health component because people self-medicate. We meet with Napa County Health & Human Services monthly to discuss mental health issues.”
“Ghost weapons are not safe and they’re in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. We must get to the manufacturers of illegal weapons. We need to train people about the danger. We’re seeking a way to talk to parents about them and create awareness.”
What does she wish the public knew about law enforcement?
“That we are humans before we are cops,” says Jennifer. “People see the uniform, the vest, the badge and the belt. Those are tools we use to do our job. Everyone has tools for their jobs. Our tools help protect and serve the community. Law enforcement is a noble profession. We are your neighbors, your relatives and we make mistakes. But we have high integrity and expectations of ourselves as well as accountability.”
“What I like most about my job is the connection with amazing people, every day, in the building or in the community. I enjoy interaction. The cool part about the job is that I talk straight and hear it straight when someone is not happy about something. We teach our officers about things like mindfulness and meditation, which 30 years ago would have never happened. It makes for better policing when they can control their energy and mind. It’s critical to their safety.”
“We train beyond the state standards in principle skills that are less lethal, like diffusion tactics. We’re human-centric.”
The department also uses the assistance of comfort dogs from the volunteer group St. John’s Comfort Dog Team to help in emergencies, if an employee needs help or in critical incidents.
What does Jennifer do in her off-hours?
“I’m a Star Wars nerd,” she says with a laugh. “I know Star Wars is a fictional movie, but I can see leadership, public trust, choosing right from wrong, and finding motivational moments in it. Plus, Star Wars is an easy way to build rapport with kids or folks who are not immediately comfortable interacting with the uniforms. If I can pull out a sticker and ask a child, ‘Do you know who this is?’ and they reply, ‘R2D2,’ I’ve made a connection.”
She wants her officers to participate and mingle at local events, too.
“We’re there at the Oxbow Stage and at BottleRock not to arrest people but to be ambassadors. The community wants that. I love Napa parades and events, interacting with folks and hanging out. It’s why we’re here; to be part of the community.”