Q&A: In the eyes of Interim CSUN Chief of Police, Alfredo Fernandez
August 30, 2021
When and why did you first decide to pursue a career in law enforcement?
Alfredo Fernandez: When I got out of high school, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I didn’t have a lot of direction. So I started going to community college and when I went to community college, I started to take a few courses along that line and I found that I had an interest in law enforcement. So that’s kind of how I got here.
You have had over 25 years of experience with law enforcement here at CSUN. What is it about this campus community that has kept you committed to CSUN for all those years?
So I’ve been part of this community for the longest of all my law enforcement experience. I’ve actually been in law enforcement for 34 years and I started here in 1998. I guess I could best illustrate why CSUN is important to me with the story that I often tell people. It means a lot to me because it’s what I think makes CSUN special.
Quite a few years ago, I have a recollection of when we were setting up for a graduation and that’s the whole reason we’re here, to watch the students walk across the stage and get their diplomas and move on and be productive people in society. So it’s always a very exciting thing so we were preparing the grounds, over at the [University] Lawn to get ready for a big commencement because always a lot of family shows up.
About an hour and a half before this particular commencement, I saw a elderly Latino gentleman standing there with these two, big, four-by-four poles, probably about six to eight feet tall. He was holding those and I walked up to him and I said, “Excuse me, sir. Why do you have these two, big, four-by-fours?” In Spanish, he said that he was going to pound them into the ground, and he was going to put a banner across the spot where his daughter could see that they were proud of her graduation. And as he told me the story, tears began to well in his eyes, and I said, “Sir, I can’t let you put these down,” and he said “No, you don’t understand. My daughter will be the first one to ever graduate from college in our entire family, and I am so proud of her.”
Well, of course I couldn’t let him put the poles down because the grounds people would have killed me. But, we did find a way so that he could spread that banner out at the appropriate moment, and it was kind of bending the rules because they weren’t allowed to do that but nobody at CSUN questioned me on letting that one get by. That’s what CSUN is all about. It’s about providing opportunities for those who have traditionally been underserved to get their education, and every year, I see the same thing. Maybe it’s not in the form of this gentleman, but I see the same thing. I see people so proud to see their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters graduating. And to me, that is the most amazing experience and why I think CSUN is special.
You were involved in the formation of the first police canine unit on campus. How was that planned and did you experience any obstacles along the way?
So, I’ve been here since 1998, but I did leave for a short stint to work at Cal State Channel Islands, and at Channel Islands, they were a very small campus just starting off. And we had a canine program there. I got the introduction into the canine program there and when I came back to CSUN, I came back as a lieutenant. I was in a position to take a leadership role in any kind of program. Lucky for me, the chief at the time, Chief Anne Glavine, shared my idea that canines have brought a lot to the campus and so she supported it. I put all the work into it, I did all the research and I found the funding sources to make it happen. It was an experience.
Now I’ll tell you that the person that I really think had a lot to bear with starting this program was our first canine officer. His name was Ray Gonzalez. At the time, I didn’t quite have the money yet for a new patrol car, but we had this old CSO van, and we called it the “Scooby van.” It was old and beat up and he had to ride in that for the first few months. Later on, we were able to purchase a new car. If there were any challenges, it was coming up with that initial funding.
We did a lot of fundraising and we found places that would provide us with a canine on a grant. The dog was like $4,000 and we got that dog for free. It’s just doing a lot of legwork to bring the program without putting in a lot of money because the campus doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on these kinds of things so you have to do a lot of fundraising and finding grants.
So that was the biggest challenge but it was also very exciting and of course today, we have a well-established, well-respected canine program that brings a lot of value to the university’s safety and the environment of the safety. I’m glad you asked about that because that’s something I’m quite proud of.
The phrase “community policing” has become popular in terms of how various towns, cities, and other entities such as institutions of higher education are rethinking the roles of their police departments. Can you tell me what community policing means to you, and how important it is to maintain a safe environment in the community in which you serve?
The thing about community policing is that the term has been out there for many years. Long before any of the current situations that have occurred in law enforcement recently, community policing has been a model that has been considered the best practice for police departments for many years. So with that, it also becomes somewhat cliche. Plenty of people say, “Hey, my department is a community policing department.” What does that mean? Well, to us, it means collaboration with the community. It means meeting up with what we would call stakeholders. Stakeholders are the community members, but the community has multiple stakeholders because we have faculty, we have staff, we have students and we have community from outside.
For example, right now, we have officers working on the problem of the damage that skateboarders bring onto the campus. Some folks that like to ride their skateboards. They like to trick skate and that causes damage and then it also causes safety issues when you’re riding a skateboard through a crowd. So, we have a couple of police officers working on a project and the whole idea of working on the project is, they don’t just sit there and go, “Okay we’re going to put a sign here that says no skateboarding and we’re going to put extra patrol in this area so that we can catch the skateboarders.”
No, that’s not the plan. We go out and we meet with the various stakeholders, which might be somebody from physical plant management that talks to us about where the vandalism is occurring. We might meet with some faculty members that are concerned during the height of the day when there’s a bunch of students walking and some kids moving through skateboards and causing injuries. We try to meet with everybody to come up with solutions so maybe we come up with some kind of device that makes it unwelcoming for somebody to ride their trick skateboard there. Maybe we do an education program where officers talk to skateboarders.
Now, the interesting thing of course right now is, I don’t have any crowds, but we will eventually. So we’ll talk to them about maybe not riding their skateboards here during a certain time of the day, so hopefully, the last option is enforcement. It’s more about solving the problem as a community and when you have the support of the community, oftentimes, they can help you enforce the end result because they bought into it. They want that particular piece of community input, and it creates a product where everybody has a stake in it. That’s why we call them stakeholders.
Your appointment as interim Chief of Police comes at a crossroads with regard to the role of law enforcement in our country. People of color continue to unjustly lose their lives in interactions with police despite ongoing protests and calls for change, sparked most recently by the murder of George Floyd last May. Many CSUN students and various groups on campus have been very outspoken about their distrust in law enforcement as well. What are your thoughts on the movement and how do you plan on building trust with a campus who mostly backs that movement?
My position on that movement is it is a just movement. It’s about holding police accountable to the community and that everybody gets treated the same way. That’s what it’s all about and that nobody is considered less than the other. So, we in law enforcement have to acknowledge, first off, that we have a lot of work to do, that we have failed in many ways to be good partners with our community, and now we have to work on building trust.
I feel that CSUN has a good foundation for that. We’ve always been a community-based police department and we’ve always received acknowledgement for that, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of work to do because clearly, if the community doesn’t believe it, it means nothing. So to that end, Chief [Gregory] Murphy, my predecessor, had already started working on various programs including a Police Advisory Committee, which contains multiple members from the community, including those that have been traditionally underrepresented or have had bad experiences with law enforcement.
So we are welcoming in that interaction to improve ourselves, and to try to be a better partner with our community. At the end of the day, those are the people that will make their decisions on whether we have been successful in rebuilding that trust. So, we have a lot of work, I acknowledge it, but we’re eager to roll up our sleeves and be part of the solution.
When helping a student who may be experiencing either a sexual assault situation and or a situation like a mental health crisis, the police department may be notified and asked to help. What do you see as the university police department’s role in situations like that?
So our first and foremost role is immediately the care of the victim. It’s always the victim first. We need to make sure that the victim’s physical and emotional well being has to be taken care of immediately. So that is our first role. The next role is to ascertain if it’s something that just occurred. What’s the threat to the campus community? Can we capture the individual that that committed the crime? So, that’s our next move we need to absolutely be involved in trying to apprehend that criminal.
Then the third thing is if we can’t apprehend that criminal, it’s notifying the community of a potential threat to the campus and to our campus communities and make sure that this doesn’t occur again. Now keep in mind, most sexual assaults are not lying and waiting for some scary individuals. Most sexual assaults occur from people we know. So, generally speaking, a lot of times we know that there might be a sexual predator out there, but it might be directed if it’s a particular individual and it might not be. Each one’s different. Every case is different, but it’s that kind of thing that keeps us moving out.
In regards to mental health, law enforcement has traditionally been the first people that you call to go assist with someone that is having a mental crisis. So we are relooking at that this year, and we’re right now in the process of setting up a partnership with the University Counseling Service, where we will be hopefully approaching the aspect of students who need immediate intervention to go to the hospital or whatnot. This way is more based on dealing with their emotional needs, by having that partnership with specially trained officers, along with mental health professionals that will respond to those crises in the moment and deal with it in a very humane and caring manner.
Lastly, most of the campus community will be back in person this upcoming academic year. How do you plan on interacting with the student body ?
So as I told you earlier, we have the police advisory committee that we’re working very closely with to hopefully have some engagement opportunities. The campus as a whole is working on multiple other options to try to figure out campus climate with regards to police. Those things are in the works, and then finally at the end of the day, it’s going to be our police officers, engaging the community being out there day in and day out being not only approachable so that you want to talk to them, but trying to talk to everybody as we go out there. That is the goal for the police department.
So we have a lot of ideas and we’re excited about them, but we’re not just going to take our own ideas. We’re going to take the ideas from other people that are reviewing how we work and we’re going to listen to them on how they want us to approach because the fact of the matter is that we can think we’re doing a great job, but the community is the judge. We need to make sure that we’re doing the things that they think we should be. We’re pretty excited about some of these engagement opportunities and the opportunity to show the community that we are good partners.
After decades on the job, what’s a campus safety tip you might have for faculty and professional staff?
There’s a saying in the police department and it comes from the military and it’s always watch your six. That means to always watch what’s behind you and this could be for any community member. Always know your surroundings, always understand where you’re at and be aware of the people around you. Many crimes are crimes of opportunity here, whether they be theft, whether they be — god forbid — sexual assaults. These kinds of things. So it’s good to kind of know where you are, who you are and understand the lighting circumstances that you’re at and kind of just looking ahead and looking behind. That’s the best safety tip I could give.
We have so many more opportunities to get involved in that. We do have our RAD program. That’s the Rape Aggression Defense Program where we help train people to do those things and be aware of their surroundings but also provide them with some defensive techniques to help them. I think that would be if I had only one piece of advice and I have tons that can go on forever and really bore you but if I just have one to say it’s that.
You’ve probably seen some interesting things during your career in law enforcement. What’s a good story you can share?
So, I think that is the strength of this department is serving the community so I recall one day driving around in my patrol car, and as I drove by, I saw this young lady of Asian descent, and she looked distraught. I didn’t know what was going on exactly with her but I knew I could see she was distraught. Her boyfriend came running to me. They didn’t speak very fluent English but enough to get by and they were of Japanese descent. I certainly didn’t speak any Japanese but they were able to get across to me that her father was in the hospital and was gravely ill and she needed to get back to Japan as quickly as possible. She didn’t know how to do it and I guess there’s some issues with passports and for students that are exchange students. Bottom line is that she needed to get all her documents and she needed to get over there right away.
So it was a Saturday, I drove her back to the station, I got a hold of the student affairs employee in charge of International Affairs, and they got her on an airplane and they made special arrangements to get her [to Japan]. I thought that was it, but about a month or two later, I received some Japanese candies with this beautiful little note from her saying that her father was okay and thank you for the help. It wasn’t just for me, it was because the university had made all these accommodations and I think she had an opportunity to come back later and complete her work here.
That really stands out to me because, to be honest, the Japanese candies didn’t taste that great, but the taste they left in my mouth knowing that I had made a difference to somebody, made a big difference to me.