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Bisa French Takes On Historic Role As Police Chief In Richmond, California

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It is a challenging time to be a police chief in the U.S. Protests for racial justice and police accountability continue, and more elected officials are reconsidering how their local law enforcement operates. There are calls to cut or even abolish budgets, to realign the police mission and to radically improve oversight. The Northern Californian city of Richmond is facing those pressures. Yesterday, Bisa French officially became Chief French. As NPR's Eric Westervelt explains, her appointment to lead the police department is a historic first for the city.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Bisa French says she didn't see herself as a future police leader when she joined the Richmond PD more than two decades ago. She was interested in law enforcement, but she really needed a job after getting pregnant.

BISA FRENCH: So I was a teenage mom before I got hired here. I got hired right at 22 years old. So it was more out of necessity. I had no, you know - no thoughts of becoming the chief. This was basically my way to be able to support myself and my son at the time.

WESTERVELT: Now at age 45, French is making history as the first woman and woman of color to lead the 150-member force. There would've been a public swearing-in ceremony this weekend, but the pandemic did away with that. French says living and raising three children here in Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area and rising through the police ranks gives her knowledge of this community, as she puts it, from both a Black and a blue perspective. Her husband is an Oakland police sergeant. French was born in San Francisco to a Puerto Rican mother and an African American father.

FRENCH: I do think I'm uniquely situated to understand the challenges that the community is bringing forth, as well as the challenges of being an officer and putting this uniform on. I am Black, and I am blue. And so I have to really - there's a line that I kind of tote and balance of being a person of color and wearing a blue uniform.

WESTERVELT: It's a tightrope made more difficult and wrenching, she says, following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and the botched no-knock police raid that killed Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor. Chief French says she was affected by those killings as a cop, a mom and a woman of color. She believes her background gives her an added level of understanding and empathy to help Richmond navigate this difficult moment in American policing.

It's a moment that, as in many cities, has sparked new demands for police accountability. A new group called Richmond Revolution sprouted up. They want the police department defunded and eventually abolished altogether. They'd rather see that money spent on schools, libraries, anti-poverty and other social service programs. Armond Lee is one of the organizers.

ARMOND LEE: We do realize that abolition is not an overnight venture. You know, it would take time. It would take years to accomplish.

WESTERVELT: So Lee and fellow Richmond Revolution founder Samone Anderson say, while they are fundamentally at odds with French on some things, they do think they can work with the new chief.

SAMONE ANDERSON: Every conversation we've had with her, she's not denying that we need more mental health resources. She's not denying that we need more housing security and food security. You know, she's not denying that these kids need more support in these schools. I mean, you know, she's acknowledging it and, you know, she says she wants to help work with us. I think that was really huge.

WESTERVELT: But how the new police chief can help with those social challenges is the big question. The city's budget just took a big hit. Chief French's own budget was slashed 10%. French wants to build on community engagement and other reforms here that have made Richmond something of a national model. In recent years, the department has increased community trust and reduced crime, including a big reduction in homicides.

The city's also feeling the strains of gentrification. Income and property values are up, but poverty and inequality remain big concerns. Still, the young organizers of Richmond Revolution say they think they now have a police chief who will listen to them and is open to change.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Richmond, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.