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Former San Diego Police Chief, County Sheriff Bill Kolender Dies

Photo credit: 10News

Bill Kolender is pictured in this undated photo.

Bill Kolender, a fixture of San Diego law enforcement who served lengthy and notable stints as police chief and county sheriff, died Tuesday at age 80.

Kolender had suffered from Alzheimer's disease since retiring in 2009, 15 years after first being elected sheriff and 21 years after resigning as chief of the San Diego Police Department.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer praised Kolender as "a pillar" of local public service and governance.

"As San Diego's police chief in the 1970s and 1980s, Bill Kolender was a leader who championed community-oriented policing and established the city's first civilian review panel on police practices," Faulconer said. "His influence still resonates decades later, and he will be dearly missed."

Current Sheriff Bill Gore recalled his former boss as a lawman who "seemed, in many respects, larger than life." "Yet, what we will remember most about him will be his personal touch," Gore said. "When a deputy was injured, (Kolender) could be counted on to be standing at the hospital bed."

San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman described described Kolender in similar terms, calling him "a law enforcement legend."

"Bill's 50-plus years of service to our law enforcement community are evidence of his selfless commitment to helping others," Zimmerman said. "He influenced so many lives — including my own, when he hired me in 1982. I am so grateful I had the privilege of working for him."

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis credited Kolender with being "a pioneer in changing how law enforcement interacted with the community and providing his deputies and officers the tools they needed to (operate) 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," she said. "He was a warm, funny and calming presence during some of San Diego's most painful events."

Among those traumatic milestones were the crash of PSA Flight 182 in North Park in 1978, a mass shooting that killed 22 people at a San Ysidro McDonald's restaurant in 1984 and historic wildfires that ravaged the region in 2003 and 2007.

Kolender, a Chicago native and San Diego State University graduate, became one of the SDPD's youngest sergeants at age 26. He continued rising steadily and rapidly through the agency's ranks, becoming chief in 1976. As leader of the department, Kolender established a "vision of community policing (that has) improved the way we police today," Zimmerman said.

On that topic, the county's present sheriff said Kolender "is widely recognized as the author of community-oriented policing and (an official who) forged strong relations with leaders in San Diego's minority communities."

"Bill set the standard for true partnership amongst agencies," Gore said. "When the (police) chiefs and sheriff meet on a regular basis, egos are left at the door — a legacy from Bill Kolender."

Kolender also strove early in his tenure as chief to outlaw racism and sexism in the ranks of the SDPD, promising to fire violators following a second offense, according to the San Diego Police Historical Association.

In the early 1980s, he established the department's service-dog program.

His tenure as chief, however, was not free of scandal. In 1986, then- City Manager John Lockwood reprimanded Kolender for fixing traffic tickets for relatives and others, improperly using municipal staffers and equipment for personal benefit, failing to report gifts on conflict-of-interest disclosures and helping a friend skirt a 15-day waiting period for buying a gun. Kolender responded by telling reporters he was embarrassed and regretted the improprieties.

After retiring from the department in 1988, he worked for a time as an assistant publisher for the Union-Tribune.

In 1991, he was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson as a director of the California Youth Authority. In the role, he lobbied for rehabilitation programs for youthful offenders.

"Bill was one of the first to realize incarceration is not the complete answer to rehabilitation," Gore said. "Educational programs and (community) re-entry initiatives were another of his innovations."

Kolender was sworn in as San Diego County sheriff in 1995, and went on to be re-elected to the post three times.

Among Kolender's first and primary achievements with the county agency following the divisive election he won was overcoming "the challenge of bringing together the department and turning it into a professional team with a common purpose and shared mission," according to Gore.

"Under his leadership, public confidence in this department was enhanced," Gore said.

Kolender wound up stepping down two years before the end of his final term, citing a need to care for his ailing wife, Lois.

Funeral arrangements were pending. Kolender's family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Alzheimer's Association, 6632 Convoy St., San Diego, CA 92111

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