The man who served for 14 years as the Sheriff of San Diego County has died, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) confirmed Tuesday.
According to the SDSO, former Sheriff William “Bill” B. Kolender died Tuesday morning after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. At the time of his passing, he was surrounded by friends and family.
Kolender was elected the 28th Sheriff of San Diego County in 1994 and was sworn into office in 1995. He was re-elected as Sheriff three times after that, in 1998, 2002 and 2006. For much of his SDSO career, he worked alongside Undersheriff Jack Drown.
According to the SDSO, Kolender’s career in law enforcement first began as a patrol officer with the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) in 1956. The San Diego Police Museum says Kolender had just gotten out of the military and was looking for a job to help support his young family, not necessarily a long police career.
By 1965, he had worked his way up to lieutenant, and was elected to serve as the president of the San Diego Police Officers Association (SDPOA).
In 1970, he was appointed Chief of the SDPD, serving in that office for 13 years.
After retiring from the SDPD, Kolender served as Director of the California Youth Authority, where he championed rehabilitation programs for the state's youngest serious offenders.
“Bill was one of the first to realize incarceration is not the complete answer to rehabilitation. Educational programs and re-entry initiatives were another of his innovations,” said current San Diego County Sheriff William “Bill” Gore in a press release announcing Kolender’s passing.
Gore said Kolender was known for his community-oriented policing and for forging strong relations with leaders in San Diego’s minority communities. He was also known for bringing law enforcement agencies together for the greater good of San Diego County.
“Bill set the standard for true partnership amongst agencies,” Gore noted. “When the Chiefs and Sheriff meet on a regular basis, egos are left at the door – a legacy from Bill Kolender.”
Described as a man who was “larger than life,” Gore said Kolender was most known for his “personal touch” in his leadership role.
“When a deputy was injured, he could be counted on to be standing at the hospital bed,” Gore wrote.
The SDSO said Kolender often felt the hardest part of his job was to deliver news to a family that their loved one had been killed in the line of duty.
“He cared deeply for the frontline deputies and officers who worked for him and loved them as family. Thus, for many of us, this loss is deeply personal. It certainly is for me, as he has been a close friend of my family for many years. He delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Assistant Police Chief William D. Gore, my father,” Gore added.
Gore told NBC 7 he personally knew Kolender for more than 50 years and considered him a “brother.”
“I think it's a gigantic loss for the law enforcement community and the people San Diego County,” Gore said.
According to the San Diego Police Museum, Kolender’s five decades in local law enforcement service made him the most senior law enforcement officer in San Diego County.
He retired as Sheriff in 2009, and, at 73 years old, was the oldest of California's 58 county Sheriffs.
Looking back at his career with the SDPD, Kolender once told the museum he knew he had succeeded when a former employee told him, “I didn’t think you were worth a crap until you left.”
“It was actually the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” Kolender said.
Gore told NBC 7 that, besides his leadership skills, one of Kolender’s best attributes was his ability to get along with people and connect with everyone around him – from members of the community to those who worked with him.
“People that knew Bill Kolender, they felt like he was their friend,” said Gore. “He was just an amazing man with a tremendous caring for people.”
“My favorite saying that he had was that you ‘take the job seriously, but not yourself,’" Gore recalled. "He had the ability to laugh at himself when something went wrong, when he made a mistake, and it humanized him.”
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis released this statement on the passing of Kolender Tuesday afternoon:
“I am heartbroken that my friend and mentor, Sheriff Bill Kolender, left us after a long illness. Today, San Diego lost a true law enforcement hero and legend. Sheriff Kolender will always hold a special place in my heart and that of my family. He was a pioneer in changing how law enforcement interacted with the community and providing his deputies and officers the tools they needed to be professional organizations. During his time as Sheriff and San Diego Police Chief, Kolender engaged the community and challenged his officers to provide the best possible public safety for San Diego County. He was a warm, funny and calming presence during some of San Diego’s most painful events.
In addition to his professional expertise, Sheriff Kolender had a knack for knowing when to show compassion, support and humility. I will never forget how he visited my dad at the hospital before he died. Sheriff Kolender placed a small Sheriff’s pin on my dad’s hospital robe, which meant so much to my family during our time of need.”
The SDSO said a memorial service will be planned for Kolender, but a date has not yet been set.
On Tuesday, flags at all SDSO facilities were lowered to half-staff in remembrance of Kolender.