Police Chief Anthony “Tony” Vairo, 60, is calling it a career. He has spent 39 years working in law enforcement for the City of San Fernando, and has been its Police Chief since 2015. He will officially retire at the end of this month.
San Fernando officials have yet to name an interim or permanent chief. City Manager Nick Kimball said an announcement would not be forthcoming until January of 2022.
Some of the following interview has been edited for space.
SFV Sun/El Sol: Since it is your plan to retire at the end of the month, can you tell us some of your history as a police officer, where you’re from originally and what led you to law enforcement and to San Fernando?
Chief Vario: “I grew up in Los Angeles, kind of in the East Hollywood area. What kind of got me interested in law enforcement — my oldest sister was a reserve officer for LAPD back in the 60s and 70s, which was quite different back in those days, and I had a cousin that was on the LAPD as well, so I kind of got interested in that way. And then about 1975, I became an explorer with LAPD Rampart division.
“Basically, when I was in high school I made that decision that what I wanted to do was get into law enforcement and that’s what I worked towards.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: How long have you been with the San Fernando Police Department, and how long have you serviced as chief?
Chief Vario: “I’ve been here since I was 19 years old. I started here as a community service officer. I apologize for those that hate parking tickets out there, too, but I did that for a couple years until I went to the academy when I was 21 years old. So I’ve been in law enforcement in this city as a police officer for 39 years.
“I’ve been Chief since March of 2015, so just a few months shy of seven years. And it’s been exciting. It has its ups and downs like any position does, but that’s just the nature of the beast.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Chief Vario: I think it’s pretty exciting that basically I grew up in this department and I was able to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming Chief of Police. I never thought I’d ever do that. That was not my goal. My goal was just to be a good cop and serve my community I worked in, and all I wanted to do was be as high as a sergeant.
“I didn’t become a sergeant until 2009. So I was a police officer for quite some time before I did that. I was a training officer. I was a detective twice. Detectives in the police department, they’re not permanent positions. So I was a detective in the early 1990s, working the auto theft desk, and then from 2003 to 2009 when I got promoted to sergeant, I was working robbery homicide. In between that I was a canine handler.
“I took it upon myself to get more involved with the police department by helping with the equipping of our police cars, getting modern equipment for them, updating our radio systems throughout the years. And so it’s been very rewarding. And of course, the ultimate is achieving where I’m at now.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: And your biggest regret?
Chief Vario: “My biggest regret is not getting our staffing level to where we need to be before I retire. We’re allotted 35 officers now through this current budget. Right now we’re down to, I believe, 29. At one time we were full, when I was allotted 31 officers from the chief on down. But unfortunately, part of the program is when somebody gets hired, they have to go through a training phase, and unfortunately, even though we do everything we can to help somebody succeed, they don’t make it. So then you have to start over again. That’s part of the process.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: What do you consider your most difficult challenge as Chief?
Chief Vario: “It’s challenging to keep morale up. It’s difficult to hire anybody because there’s a lot of people that want to get in law enforcement, but because of their backgrounds, they don’t qualify or trying to get that right person that fits for our department and our community. And especially now, for the last year or two years, It is very difficult to get anybody into law enforcement because of the anti-police movement that’s going on throughout the country. And you can’t blame them.
“It’s a very difficult job to do. It’s a thankless job, but we do all that we can do here…But still, my officers, they’re burned out because they’re working a lot of overtime to cover shifts because we can’t hire people.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: Since you’ve been here this length of time, you’ve seen the department go through some improprieties involving Chief Anthony Alba (an affair with an explorer) and Sgt. Alvaro Castellon (an affair with then Councilmember Brenda Esqueda), a jail hanging, and [and other improprieties].
Chief Vario: “One of the things that is going to be coming into play is we’ve just received a grant from the federal government for a de-escalation simulator, and we’re going to utilize that. [The new equipment will] show different scenarios, dealing with somebody that’s homeless, dealing with somebody that’s having a critical moment in their lives, a mental breakdown, whatever. So we’re going to get more involved in that, to give the officers a lot more opportunity to de-escalate.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: Would the equipment you’re describing have helped in the situation when a homeless man holding a tree branch was shot?
Chief Vario: As far as the equipment that will be purchased to further assist officers on how to deal with certain situations in the field, would it have helped the officer in the above incident? I would say no. There was no time to de-escalate and every situation is different. The department job is to give our officers as many tools as possible to assist them with handling different situations.
SFV Sun/El Sol: I imagine there were other frustrations, sometimes with cases that aren’t solved that you would like to have solved. For example, the musician, Fred-Freak Smith…
Chief Vario: “Yes, in [Las Palmas] park…. Unfortunately, the musician was killed [in 2017]; we wanted closure for the family, and it’s hard because we have limited information. There was some DNA evidence which didn’t match up to who we thought it was going to come back to. We’re still waiting to see if it matches up to anybody else, and there’s nobody else in the system that’s matching up to that could help us lead to the who the assailant was.
“Back in 2003, I can remember another incident — a double homicide on Hubbard Avenue right between Second and Fourth streets, and the families need closure for that. I happened to be working robbery homicide at the time. We put a lot of resources in that one with the Sheriff’s department. We worked on it solid for many, many months, and we had a lot of people identified. But that particular incident was gang-related, and of course, it’s very hard for other gang members to give up other gang members that were involved in the shooting. So that’s an unsolved case as well.
“I’m sure there’s quite a bit of cases that are unsolved because…people don’t want to cooperate whether it’s because it’s gang-related or it’s drug-related, or whatever the case may be. It’s difficult.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: [The public may not] understand sometimes when and why cases are handed over to the Sheriff’s department to investigate. Can you elucidate on that a little bit?
Chief Vario: “We have a great relationship with the Sheriff’s department, and they’re a great resource. They have a lot more resources than we have, and that’s why we contact them for our homicides and our officer-involved shootings because we just don’t have the manpower. We only have three detectives and where they have [many]….They assign a team to us. And that’s a huge resource.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: Isn’t turning certain cases over to Sheriff’s deputies standard procedure?
Chief Vario: Turning over and assisting with certain investigations to LASD is standard for homicide investigations, officer-involved shootings, and criminal conduct involving either our civilian or sworn personnel.
SFV Sun/El Sol: Have you, by chance, endorsed anybody yet as the next chief? Have you given input in that way?
Chief Vario: “No, I actually try to keep neutral. That’s up to the City Manager. There are pros and cons with somebody coming in from within the organization and from outside the organization. Of course, somebody that’s in the organization, they know all the ‘ins-and-outs,’ but that’s not my decision.
“If they ask me my opinion on how certain people work with others, I will do it as generally as I can. [But] it’s the City Manager’s decision. He should make that decision free and clear.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: What do you feel are the most necessary skills to be a chief in a town like San Fernando?
Chief Vario: “Being able to communicate, being part of the community and being involved with the community is key. And I think [that’s true] in any city. Here it’s been great because it’s small, it’s easy to get around. I try to make myself available. It was difficult at times during COVID, during the heart of the pandemic. Trying to reach out via Zoom is really kind of impersonal, but…we couldn’t meet people in person because of the restrictions.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: Others that have left the chief position have gone on to work at other departments or other businesses. Do you have a plan yet? Or do you have an idea of what another position might be for you? Are you looking forward to anything like that?
Chief Vario: “I don’t plan to work for another city. I don’t plan to work, right now, for any other companies. I’ve worked long enough and….I want to enjoy life. My wife and I, we want to travel. I’ve got an old car, a 1969 Camaro. So now I have no excuse to get that finished so I can enjoy it.”
SFV Sun/El Sol: Any last thoughts about your retirement?
Chief Vario: “I’m sad that I’m leaving, but it’s the right time for me to leave. I’m leaving, I believe, on a good note and my heart’s always been in this community.
“I may be retiring, but I’m not walking away. I’m still going to come out to different events. I basically grew up here, so it’s hard for me to completely walk away — I love being here, I love this community. It’s just time for me to go and start spending more time with my wife, and enjoying the family.”