Family, friends and members of the law enforcement community were mourning Wednesday former San Diego Police Chief and County Sheriff Bill Kolender, who died after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease Tuesday at age 80.
Kolender, a fixture of San Diego law enforcement, had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease since retiring in 2009. His more than 50-year local law enforcement career included 13 years as police chief and 14 as sheriff.
San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who was hired by Kolender in 1982, said she would miss him deeply and was grateful she had the privilege of working for him.
“Our hearts are heavy and all of our thoughts and prayers are with his family as we all grieve the loss of a legend,” Zimmerman said. “Please keep Bill in your thoughts as you go about your day, for although he may be gone, his memory and his legacy will continue for a lifetime.”
Current Sheriff Bill Gore recalled that the lawman who “seemed, in many respects, larger than life” delivered the eulogy at the funeral of his father, Assistant Police Chief William D. Gore.
“He cared deeply for the frontline deputies and officers who worked for him and loved them as family,” Gore said. “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.”
A statement from the National City Police Department said Kolender “holds a special place in San Diego’s heart.”
“Sheriff Kolender was a pioneer in changing how (law enforcement) interacted with the community,” according to the statement. “He had a knack for showing compassion, humor and humility.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer heralded Kolender as “a legend in local law enforcement circles” and “a great San Diegan.”
“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.”
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis credited Kolender, her mentor and friend, with being “a pioneer in changing how law enforcement interacted with the community.”
“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 tragic 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.
Gore said Kolender is widely recognized as the author of community- oriented policing and set the standard for partnership among agencies.
Kolender worked early in his tenure as chief to ban 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. He also established the department’s service-dog program in the early 1980s.
However, his lengthy tenure as chief 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, a role in which he lobbied for rehabilitation programs for youthful offenders.
He was sworn in as San Diego County sheriff in 1995, and went on to be re-elected to the post three times.
Funeral arrangements are 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.
—City News Service