When Pedro Espinoza was appointed chief of the Gilroy Police Department in October, he assumed a vital leadership role during a time of amplified challenges and law enforcement scrutiny nationwide.

From last year’s murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery to the widespread protests and call for a reorganization of police resources and increased transparency, the reputation of law enforcement as a protective force has been torn asunder. Staffing and financial constraints emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic add more layers of challenges, but Espinoza is committed to making positive changes within his longtime department.

“I always get the question, ‘why would you want to do that now?’ But for me, the question is, ‘why wouldn’t I?’” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to be a change agent and to be a part of the next phase of policing.”

Growing up in Compton, Espinoza (Sociology, ’99) came of age during the heyday of television’s crime drama series “CHiPs,” while also watching real-life law enforcement play out in his community. Leading his observations was that, during a time of heightened racial tension, gang violence, and drive-by shootings, police and highway patrol officers he saw in his South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood didn’t exactly represent the racial breakdown of its residents.

“There was a major disconnect there,” said Espinoza, who had first dreamed of becoming a law enforcement officer as a child. “The majority of the police officers patrolling our streets were white, and they just weren’t invested in the community, other than being employed to serve and protect them just like they did anything else.”

From that point on, Espinoza knew law enforcement was his path—and his desire to become a change agent was solidified.

Originally a criminal justice major at Chico State, Espinoza was inspired and motivated by a class with sociology faculty Homer Metcalf to seek more understanding about human behavior. He also immersed himself in the college experience, connecting with and investing in those around him. The first-generation student was a resident advisor in Lassen Hall for the Summer Bridge program, co-founded the multicultural fraternity Epsilon Sigma Rho; advised fellow students in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and helped schedule entertainers for Chico Performances.

“I was exposed to folks from different backgrounds and ethnicities,” he said. “Being able to share thoughts and experiences is such a rich part of the college experience.”

Espinoza carried those leadership qualities to the police academy, where he quickly became a first-class commander for his recruit cohort—planting seeds for future, more significant roles in law enforcement.

After his first law enforcement job at the University of California, Davis, he moved on to the Vacaville Police Department and spent seven years working a wide range of beats, like the narcotics task force, gang unit, and SWAT team. Nearly 18 years ago, he was hired by Gilroy Police Department, where he worked the undercover unit and SWAT team—eventually achieving the ranks of corporal, sergeant, and captain, before his promotion to its top role.

The last year has presented Espinoza and his police force with multiple challenges, including the national response to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Like many of his colleagues and civilians across the country, he was appalled and disheartened.

“That really was not reflective of what police officers should be doing,” he said. “That really resonated horribly on the profession.”

Espinoza led the department in taking action, implementing a “duty to intercede” policy, removing the carotid vascular neck restraint as a less lethal force option, and providing department-wide de-escalation training.

“We expect our officers to carry out their duties with the sanctity of life in mind, without prejudice, and applying only the level of force that is reasonable given the totality of the circumstances and facts available to them at the time of the encounter,” he said. “The goal is to complete every encounter peacefully.”

Additionally, Espinoza and other police chiefs in Santa Clara County issued a statement of solidarity, denouncing the criminal actions and inactions of those involved.

“It was important for us to actively engage our community in dialogue centered on the topic of use of force in policing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gilroy, a rural Central Valley community renowned for its production of garlic and boutique wines and with a population of 57,000, was already adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Espinoza said its police department felt financial restraints as a result, “forcing us to do less with less.”

“Unfortunately, we had to lay off some of our folks and freeze a number of positions, while our work has not slowed,” he said. “Trying to keep a healthy and resilient workforce has also been a primary endeavor.”

And in the throes of the pandemic, the city marked the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting at its annual Gilroy Garlic Festival that left three people dead and 17 others wounded in July 2019. Espinoza knows that his profession is situated in “a very challenging era,” yet embraces the opportunity to do better for his community.

“I’ve done some reflection to figure out what we need to do, starting with looking at the man in the mirror to make this profession better and really take those steps, so that we regain the trust that we lost, and that we’re as transparent with our actions as we can be, both internally and externally,” he said.

One way Espinoza hopes to further strengthen existing connections with his constituents—which is 53 percent Latino—is recently hosting a forum conducted entirely in Spanish to discuss issues pertinent to the community.

“I set up a panel of officers that encompassed every field in our department—and it was completely bilingual,” he said. “Local police chiefs that are also bilingual are not too common, so it’s really a privilege and an honor for me to be in that position.”

Espinoza sees a connection between his reaching out to his local community today and his college involvement with so many students, staff, and faculty from all walks of life.

“The highlight of any college experience, I think, is the accessibility of folks from all over the world and just being in that kind of academic environment,” he said. “We get this exposure from all these different backgrounds and fellow students who were different majors—and sometimes we find that special someone.”

For Espinoza, one such someone entered his life when he met Zenedith Hernandez (Sociology, ’01) in the EOP office in 1993. Though they wouldn’t know it at the time, 10 years after they first crossed paths they would marry—and today they are raising a pair of teenage girls, helping to serve as a wonderful reminder of Espinoza’s unforgettable college experience.

“The relationships I developed and cultivated during my years at Chico State, my experience on campus working for EOP and Associated Students, and my personal journey with inequities ignited the will to always try to make a positive change in whatever I took on,” Espinoza said.