By Mike Kinney
Last month, Bisa French added another major milestone to her career. The law enforcement veteran who in 2013 became the Richmond Police Department’s first African American and Latina captain — and also the youngest to ever hold the position — can now say she’s RPD’s first interim female police chief. And at age 44, she is the youngest to ever hold this post, too.
That deserves a celebration. But Interim Chief French, a Pinole Valley High graduate who joined RPD in 1998 as a 22-year-old single mother, has her focus on the challenges ahead.
Her appointment as interim police chief on Sept. 17 followed a lengthy bout of low morale in the police department that led to an overwhelming vote of no-confidence in former Richmond police Chief Allwyn Brown, who subsequently resigned.
Now, Chief French is tasked with improving internal morale while simultaneously maintaining the community policing strategies that have been credited with making Richmond a safer place to live than when she first became a cop.
We sat down with Chief French to talk about those issues and more in a Question and Answer session.
How does it feel to be Richmond’s first female police chief?
Bisa French: “It feels good to break barriers. It’s 2019 and it is hard to believe that there is a first anything anymore when it comes to females. It feels good to break those barriers and to have the support of the community and department…But I do not look at myself as being the first female police chief, I simply look at myself as being the police chief. My job has the same challenges whether I am a man or woman.”
What inspired you to embark in a career in law enforcement?
Bisa French: “As a young kid growing up I always had the desire to become a police officer. I was a little afraid to embark on this journey, but I had a life changing experience. When I was 18 years old, I became pregnant with my first child and at that point I had to figure out what I wanted to do in life. I just didn’t want to jump from job to job. I wanted a stable career where I could support myself and my son. I had always been interested in law enforcement, so I thought it was now or never. I started applying with different police agencies and luckily I got hired by Richmond after my 22nd birthday.”
What would you say to young woman considering a career in law enforcement?
Bisa French: “I would say the future is female. We don’t have enough females in law-enforcement and this profession really needs us. We have a way of being able to connect with people, showing empathy without giving up the command presence we need to have. We are able to do that and provide some empathy, sympathy and compassion. I am not saying that men can’t do that but we women just do it better. So this profession really needs more females.”
How has it changed for women since you first signed up?
Bisa French: “It has changed a lot since I’ve been in the profession. Unfortunately we still have a lot of people who think women should not be in this profession…But those challenges have pushed me to excel. When they tell you that you can’t do something, I am going to show you that I can. Just sitting in the seat now as Chief, things have come full circle.”
How do you think the RPD has changed or evolved since you first joined?
Bisa French: “The RPD has become much more engaged with the community. When I first started we were more in a survival mode, I would say. We were a very dangerous city, probably in the top 10 in the country. So we were just in the responsive mode, going from call to call. Most of the time it was violent crimes we were responding to. We have now come around to working with the community, so we are not having such violence in the city. We work to build community support and trust. Sometimes that trust is broken and we have to deal with those issues. We must work with our community because we can’t do it alone. In working with the community, we make partnerships, get input. We truly want be partners so we can address crimes and quality of life issues, so that Richmond is a place that is safe for everyone.”
What are your goals as the interim Chief of Police? What do you think is needed to restore morale among the rank-and-file? “
Bisa French: “My goals are two-fold. Right now the way I became Chief was not the way I had anticipated when we had a vote of no-confidence, so one part of my goals is to focus internally on the needs of my department. Obviously there are some things that got us to this point. My goal is to have continued conversations and to work in partnership with all of the staff to make it better internally for all of us. We have been meeting with the Richmond Police Officer’s Association and civilian staff so we can figure out what the priorities are and keep moving forward.
I have to balance that with the community’s needs. Luckily, despite everything that has been happening internally, our officers continue to go out there along with our professional staff to provide great customer service. So that part is already on the right path. Right now we are really struggling with hiring and retention of officers and dispatchers. I have to advocate for resources for competitive salaries and benefits to retain the great staff that have created and can sustain our great partnerships with the community.”
What are some of things you like to do when you are off-duty? Any favorite places you like to eat or shop in Richmond?
Bisa French: “My favorite thing I like to do when I’m off-duty is to watch my kids engage in sports. My oldest is 25 and he is in the work force, so he doesn’t do sports. He loves to cook and I love eating his meals. My daughter is in high school and I love to watch her play volleyball. My other son is in high school and he is a basketball and football player. My weekends are spent being engaged in being their number one fan.”
For more information on Interim Chief French’s background, view her bio on the city’s website here.