Paco Balderrama was sworn in as Chief of Police in Fresno, California on January 11 after a 22-year career with the Oklahoma City Police Department, where he retired as a deputy chief. He spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about his career and his plans for the agency.

Chuck Wexler: Tell me about your career in Oklahoma City.

Chief Balderrama: I’m originally from El Paso, Texas. My twin brother and I moved to Oklahoma City in 1993, when we were high school sophomores, because we had family there. We were both involved in sports, including wrestling, football, and some powerlifting. And we were always interested in serving our community in some way. Our school resources officer, Sergeant Max Blumenthal, was inspirational. He convinced us to at least consider a career in law enforcement.

We graduated from high school on a Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning we started our training as detention officers for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. As soon as we turned 21 years old, we both applied for the Oklahoma City Police Department, and we both were hired.

We were actually the very first brothers allowed to go through the same police academy. Typically immediate family members would not be in the same police academy, and they would separate you. But they allowed us to go through the process together.

I had a 22-year career with the Oklahoma City Police Department. It was very rewarding. I got to serve in a lot of different roles, including with the SWAT team, as a DARE instructor, as a public information officer, as a supervisor over the bike patrol, and a little undercover work. It was a diverse career, and I really enjoyed it.

Wexler: What made you want to be a police officer?

Chief Balderrama: I have several uncles in law enforcement, mainly in New Mexico and Texas, but I didn’t have a lot of contact with them growing up. I think the motivating favor for myself as well as my brother was the ideal of being in a profession where you could give something back, protect and serve your community, and have an interesting job.

Wexler: What was your rank when you left Oklahoma City?

Chief Balderrama: I had been a deputy chief for almost two years when I was offered the Fresno police chief position.

Wexler: Why were you interested in Fresno?

Chief Balderrama: I went to the FBI National Academy in 2017, and my roommate was Capt. Karl Anderson, who is an assistant chief with the Hanford Police Department just south of Fresno. I saw the job advertised in 2019, when they did the first search, which was unsuccessful. At that time I had only been a deputy chief for about six months and I just didn’t feel I was ready. It wasn’t something I was interested in at the time. I was really focused on my current position in Oklahoma City.

Fresno had an unsuccessful chief search and named a deputy chief as the interim chief, knowing that he would have to retire early in the spring of 2021. And then they started a new search, which began in June 2020.

When I saw the advertisement the second time around, I was a lot more interested, because in their description of what they were looking for, I felt they were almost describing me, and my career and experiences. So I was intrigued and excited about it.

The first thing I did was reach out to my friend, Captain Anderson, and he had a lot of positive things to say about the community, the department, and the Central Valley in California.

I spoke to my wife, who is typically against us going anywhere, but she was also intrigued.  So it seemed like a good fit, and I threw my name in the hat.

Wexler: Coming from a different part of the country, how are you getting to know the department? Is that more difficult during the pandemic?

Chief Balderrama: I was also dealing with COVID in Oklahoma City, so I was acclimated to the world with COVID in it, including the precautions, limitations, and police/community relations mostly being virtual. In Oklahoma City, we did have some violent protests and some arrests. We had to set up barricades in front of police headquarters. That was my previous year of experience, so I was bringing that with me.

It’s been a joy to get to know the department. Although it’s probably been the busiest two weeks of my life, it’s been a great deal of fun getting to know so many people in this police department. I’ve been very encouraged by the level of talent, the professionalism, the communications skills, and the level of education of the people who work for me and around me. That’s been inspiring.

As an outside police chief, I’ve learned some things. Number one, 90% of the Fresno Police Department is very similar to the Oklahoma City Police Department. What I notice are the differences – areas where Fresno PD is doing better than my previous department, or areas that need improvement. I think an advantage of having an outside police chief is that those things really stand out, because the culture here is new to me.

I’ve been hitting as many lineups as I can to meet people. I call them “lineups,” but here they call them “briefings.” The lingo is a little different. “Districts” vs. “divisions” and things like that. I’m switching to Fresno’s terminology rather than asking people to use the terms that I’m accustomed to. I’m two weeks in, and I feel like I’ve been here two months. I feel like I’m ahead of the curve and further along than I expected to be so soon.

Wexler: How is COVID-19 impacting Fresno?

Chief Balderrama: Things are very restricted here in California because the numbers are very, very high. It’s similar to what we were dealing with in Oklahoma. Everything is about social distancing, holding meetings virtually instead of in person, and washing your hands. We’re also dealing with the vaccine. California is a very big, populous state, so at this point there is not enough vaccine. It looks like it’s going to be mid-February before we can start vaccinating our police officers.

Wexler: What about violent crime?

Chief Balderrama: Violent crime had gone up in pretty much every large city in California, including Fresno. We finished the year with 75 homicides and almost 800 shootings, which is very, very high for this community. Typically it would be about half that number in both those categories.

My swearing in was Monday, January 11. The next day we had a strategic planning meeting on addressing violent crime. The meeting was going on for three hours but I said, “Look, we’re not leaving this room until we come up with a comprehensive plan to address violent crime.” And we did. We had a lot of very good ideas being suggested.  

We’ve had a gang operation since the 11th, and, right now, violent crime is on a downward trend. We’re going to try to continue that. It will be difficult. It takes resources, and resources are not very plentiful right now. So we have to do more with less, but I think that’s what every major city police chief has to deal with right now.

Wexler: And what about use of force?

Chief Balderrama: That’s always a hot topic. The Fresno community had a police reform commission that put together 73 recommendations, which were finalized in November. I have that document on my desk right now, and it’s something I review frequently. I’m working closely with the mayor’s office and our attorneys to determine which recommendations make the most sense and are low-hanging fruit that can be implemented fairly quickly, and which ones are going to take more discussion, attention, and I may need to work with the union to implement. And there are a few that will be a lot more difficult to implement and may need some legal recourse to be pushed forward.

Wexler: What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?

Chief Balderrama: I want to make Fresno a safer community to live in, which is the primary function of any police department. I want the residents of this community to feel safe when they go to the park, and to feel like they can drive down the street in any part of the city and not have to worry about violent crime. If we can make this community safer for everyone, that would be the ultimate goal I would like to achieve.

Along with that goal, I’d also like to improve community trust in their police department, and I think the two goals are in tandem. 2020 has taught all of us a lot about society, racism, and the way different communities look at the government and their police departments. I really don’t think police work in general will ever be the same. I think we take the lessons from 2020 and make improvements.

So, in addition to lowering violent crime, over the next five years I’d really like to implement some of the 73 recommendations this commission put together, in order to make the Fresno Police Department a better department, treat citizens with dignity and respect, and increase public trust.

We also don’t have enough police officers for the size of the city. So If I could make this department bigger, better, more engaging, more transparent, and reduce violent crime in the next five years, it would be a dream come true.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.