The police chief slapped the cuffs on me before I knew what was going on. He smiled at the laughing crowd gathered for a tour inside the basement of the new Chula Vista Police Department’s headquarters.
That was 2004. Chula Vista Police Chief Rick Emerson was smiling a lot while showing off the new facility that he played a major role in bringing to reality. I squirmed in the cuffs.
It was one of the many memories people recalled after learning Emerson died April 2 after a sudden and short battle with stomach cancer.
“He was such an inspiration to me as an individual and the kind of person you always want to make proud,” said current Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy. “There was nobody at this police department who could outwork Chief Emerson.”
During 17 years as the city’s top cop, Emerson expanded the entire department, introduced several community policing programs and always looked for ways to improve.
“He was the guy who was always thinking about the future and how we lead in law enforcement,” Kennedy said. “You’ll walk around this department, and you’ll see the legacy that he left. He professionalized the Chula Vista Police Department.”
Kennedy still couldn’t believe Emerson was gone.
“I was shocked because it was completely unexpected,” Kennedy said as we sat inside her office in police headquarters.
Kennedy said Emerson, who retired in 2009, was incredibly active. He ran marathons, hiked and biked. A close friend said Emerson rode 18 miles a few days before his death, in fact. Emerson kept his diagnosis of stomach cancer close to the vest.
Tuesday, a couple of his retired captains and longtime officers gathered at police headquarters to share some of their favorite stories. I was a fly on the wall. It was fun to hear them talk about the time Emerson was left speechless at a meeting; something that rarely happened.
Then there was the time his captains accidentally locked themselves inside one of the rooms under construction at the new headquarters. They wanted to escape before Emerson arrived in the morning.
Then there was the promotion to captain that was immediately followed by an order to create a five-year strategic plan.
Oh, and the handcuffs on a young reporter.
“He was funny,” Kennedy said with a smile. “He had quite a sense of humor, as I think you know.”
The current and former police officers kept pointing at names on a plaque marking the dedication of the police headquarters. All the stories returned to Emerson.
“When I think of him, I think about where we were when I first started in 1992,” Kennedy said.
A young Officer Roxana Kennedy was one of Emerson’s first hires upon being named Chula Vista’s Police Chief after a 23-year career on the Pasadena Police force.
“And now, everyday I sit at the same desk,” Kennedy said, sitting up straight with pride. “I don’t think he ever looked at me as potentially becoming the chief of police, nor did I.”
Chief Kennedy was just another thing Emerson got right in Chula Vista. She’s still trying to make him proud.
“He’s always going to be a part of this department.”