Following up on yesterday’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Chris Hsiung, who became chief of the Mountain View, California Police Department on December 27. Chief Hsiung spent the first five years of his public safety career as a community services officer and dispatcher, before serving as a sworn member of the Mountain View Police Department for the past 24 years.

The city of Mountain View has a population of approximately 82,000, with a median household income of almost $140,000 and 6.7% of the population living in poverty. In 2019, the city had no murders and 170 violent crimes.

Chief Hsiung recently published his thoughts on how law enforcement leaders can connect with their communities in the wake of this summer’s demonstrations.

Chuck Wexler: Tell me a bit about yourself and your department.

Chief Hsiung: I’ve grown up in this department, going on 25 years. Mountain View is located in the heart of Silicon Valley. A lot of companies you may have heard of call Mountain View home, including Google, LinkedIn, and Intuit, just to name a few. It’s very common for me to look outside my window and see an autonomous robot going by delivering food or library books, and there are even autonomous cars driving all over the place.

Our community has about 82,000 people. Prior to COVID, it would double in size with all the workers coming into their offices at tech companies.

The tech and startup mentality of Silicon Valley carries over into our police department. Since I was first hired, the leadership here has always had a progressive nature, and that’s had a huge impact on me as I’ve grown up within the ranks. We’ve adopted a little bit of that startup culture of not being afraid to fail, and applying that to police work.

I think the default setting in a lot of law enforcement and, on a broader scale, government is “don’t take chances” and “don’t do anything wrong, because we can’t fail.” The culture here has always been to take responsible risks and try new things. If you stumble and fall, we’ll take that as a learning experience and try not to do that again. Of course, you want to avoid the egregious mistakes, and thankfully we’ve been able to avoid those.

I think that goes a long way towards developing an adaptive culture. So when you get things like the coronavirus or the turbulent events of this past summer, officers throughout the ranks respond with a broader perspective and an adaptive nature. That’s definitely something I want to foster going forward.

As for me, I knew I wanted to be an officer since I was a kid. At age 8 our house was broken into, and an officer came to take the report. I was hooked from that second. I saw the officer, and the symbolism of the uniform, and how it made me feel safe. Despite the pleadings of my parents to try out other things, like being a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, I kept gravitating back towards law enforcement. I was a Police Explorer, then in high school and college I got part-time jobs with a local police department.

I’m from the Bay Area and grew up in a community a few cities away. Mountain View was hiring, and I didn’t know too much about it at the time I started. But I’ve always been interested in tech as a hobby, so it was a perfect fit to be here in Silicon Valley.

Wexler: You’re in a very wealthy community. How does that impact your hiring?

Chief Hsiung: When we put out a job description, the starting pay for an officer is over $100,000. Everyone thinks that’s great, until they look at the cost of a house here. The typical three-bedroom, two-bath fixer-upper here in Mountain View is probably upwards of $2 million. And it’s a competitive environment where, if you have the amount to put a down payment on the property, you’re probably getting outbid by somebody who’s paying all cash.

That creates some incredible challenges for us, because most of our officers drive up to 1-2 hours to work. We even have one who flies in from Idaho. We have sleeping quarters here for officers. We have three 12-hour shifts over the weekend, so some officers stay here all weekend. That’s just how we try to make ends meet with staffing.

I think we only have two or three officers who live here, in a department of 96 sworn officers. One qualified for below market-rate housing, but that was only because she was in the academy at the time. The second she graduated from the academy, she would’ve made too much money to qualify for that housing program.

The city does make a lot of attempts to get affordable housing, but law enforcement is not alone in this challenge. The city has tried to meet these demands for teachers and other frontline workers as well. And it’s a challenge Bay Area-wide, not just in Mountain View.

I think the biggest impact internally is that you lose a little bit of cohesion. When I was first hired, housing was not such a barrier, and you had more people doing things together after hours and just enjoying each other’s company socially. Christmas parties were well attended. But when you have this dynamic where everyone is coming from so far away, they’re just exhausted and they might not hang out as much after work.

So it presents challenges, and we’ve tried to address those challenges by taking advantage of digital resources, including social media and internal newsletters that cater towards the younger generations’ usage of smartphones. It’s not perfect.

Wexler: Are you able to live in the city?

Chief Hsiung: I grew up a few cities away, and bought a house and planted roots there when I started my career. I can’t afford to move to Mountain View at this point. It would be of interest, because obviously you want to be a part of the community that you are leading. But I think Bay Area culture is such that you can still do a lot digitally and remotely.

Wexler: What are the most significant crime concerns in Mountain View?

Chief Hsiung: What we see most are property crimes. It’s largely a safe city. In the Bay Area, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland are the large metropolitan areas, and everywhere else are medium- and small-sized agencies like Mountain View. The small- and medium-sized agencies typically deal with property crime, and we see patterns where a lot of the criminal activity comes from the larger metropolitan areas, which can sometimes include violent crime.

Most years we don’t have any homicides. By and large, it’s a safe community.

Wexler: What does community policing look like in your community?

Chief Hsiung: It’s a very digitally connected community, so that plays into our strategy for interacting, engaging, and building trust. We’ve never stepped away from the in-person opportunities, but we understand that this community is on their smartphones.

For everything you can do in person by engaging with an officer, we want you to have the same experience online. And we don’t want to be that government entity that just ignores the comments online. We actually respond, and our voice and tone are that of a human and a professional, not just the “government-speak.” That approach has helped us a lot.

We had one negative event about five years ago when an officer was arrested. We went to our social media platforms to write an open letter to the community. Instead of saying “no comment,” we took them through the process. Our tone was that we were just as angry and confused, and we were learning about it as they were. The end result was that the community may have been angry at the officer, but they built and gained trust with the department because of the transparency and the unique approach we’ve taken. We bring the community along for the ride as much as we can, and provide as much context as we can. And that’s in sync with what we try to do in person, at least in a non-COVID environment.

Wexler: Most tech employees are working remotely. How has that changed your department’s operations and strategy?

Chief Hsiung: One side of town is home to most of the physical locations for those companies, and it’s really become a ghost town. It’s heavily impacted our businesses and restaurants there. The streets are a lot more empty than normal. We’ve told officers to pull back a little bit on proactivity, because of the fear of coronavirus exposure. And that’s a nuanced approach, because you’re asking officers who really want to be out there to pull back just a little without completely disappearing. We still have a duty to keep our community safe.  We’ve had a lot of conversations with our officers and our officers’ association. They understand and are supportive, but this coronavirus presents an interesting environment.

Wexler: You’ve developed an expertise in the public information aspect of the job during your career. How will you use that expertise as chief?

Chief Hsiung: I probably won’t use it as much, coming from the office of the chief, because we have a rock star public information officer in Katie Nelson and I feel it’s important that a lot of the messaging comes from the department as a whole. But there are times, such as announcing really good news or really bad news, when information should come from the chief’s social media accounts. It’s similar to the way we used to look at press conferences. Typically a PIO would make a lot of the announcements, but if it’s especially important, you need a chief in uniform to deliver that message.

I see the role of the chief on social media as supplemental to the department’s efforts, because the department’s brand is important. But for political reasons and to have a presence in the community, I feel strongly that chiefs need to have a strong presence online to interact with their stakeholders.

Wexler: Do you build any partnerships with these big tech companies?

Chief Hsiung: Yes, we’ve had quite a few, and that’s the nice thing about being physically close to these companies. For example, we worked with Google’s mapping team to create and fine-tune our critical incident management maps. When we had some extreme storms come through the area a few years ago, we built in a shareable map that we could update with information about which streets were flooded.

We’ve worked with Nextdoor to provide input about what we’d like to see from a law enforcement perspective. We’ve found ourselves to be a test bed for what might and might not work. There were issues in some communities with people reporting “suspicious” people on Nextdoor, when really it was a racially-biased perception of those people. Nextdoor approached us about how to address that issue, and we worked with them on creative ideas to talk more about suspicious activity rather than suspicious people.

A lot of these companies are more than willing to sit down and talk, because they understand that when they talk to people in different stakeholder groups, including law enforcement, they can make their own companies better.

Wexler: How are you addressing the police reform issues that have been raised this year?

Chief Hsiung: I just wrapped up meeting with all the different patrol teams and work units, and one of the common themes I’ve been telling them takes inspiration from what Simon Sinek talks about in The Infinite Game and brings it over to law enforcement. We’re never really going to show up at work and say, “Okay, we’re done.” We never finish, so the solution is to always get better. My challenge to the department is, regardless of which unit you work in, are you going to look back in six months and say your influence made the team better?

That ties into fostering an adaptive organization. If 2020 taught us anything, the new normal in law enforcement is dealing with overlapping crises that keep coming. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me to look out into the bay and see Godzilla coming towards the city. That’s the reality we’re in now. The best way for law enforcement to not only meet that challenge head-on, but to thrive through it, is to have an adaptive organization. Whether you’re an officer, you’re in middle management, or you’re at the top, you’ve surrounded yourself with people who will think outside the box and will carry us through to a successful resolution, whatever the crisis might be.


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.