Faces of Berkeley: Mitch Celaya, UCPD chief

With retirement looming, campus police chief reflects on highs and lows of UC Berkeley tenure

Amabelle Ocampo/Staff
UC Berkeley Police Chief Mitch Celaya announced that he will be retiring at the end of this year.

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Stacks of paperwork pile high behind the chief’s desk after another day of meetings. He will accumulate more papers before the day ends, but for a brief respite, he sits in his Sproul Hall office and answers email.

Being UCPD chief is not an easy job, and since assuming the position in 2009, Mitch Celaya has managed some of UC Berkeley’s most controversial disputes — from the Wheeler Hall occupation in 2009 to last year’s November Days of Action. But effective Dec. 31, Celaya will retire from his post and thus end a 30-year career with the campus police.

Though not boastful, Celaya’s upper shelf displays various achievements and awards that he has been given during his time in the department.

Despite the accolades, many students and community members have criticized the department’s actions — and Celaya’s direct leadership — by alleging that the police force has repeatedly harassed and brutalized students during campus protests.

“My job is to provide direction, to provide expectation, philosophy of the department and, most importantly, to provide resource, skills and training for my people to do what they need to do,” Celaya said.

Celaya first joined the force as an officer in 1982 after living most of his life in a small town in Northern California.
“Coming to Berkeley was a significant cultural shock,” Celaya said. “I arrested the Naked Man; got involved with demonstrations, from people in trees to barricading buildings.”

Protests were more organized when he first began working for the department, Celaya said. There was usually a leader that made arrangements with the police for potential consequences of protesting.

But since he took responsibility three years ago, Celaya said, the department has had difficulty because of the “leaderless” development of protests. Without a “point person,” Celaya said it has become more difficult to disseminate information to protesters about the consequences they may face.

Still, campus members and protesters harbor criticism toward the captain for what they claim is continued police action against activists.

“I think the moment of truth of his entire career came on Nov. 9,” said Navid Shaghaghi, a UC Berkeley alumnus and campus activist. “He basically allowed his officers to brutalize students … we really can’t trust the campus police.”

Last year, Nov. 9 became marked in Berkeley’s history when a protest against fee hikes lead toUCPD police officers using batons on protesters, resulting in widespread criticism and a subsequent re-evaluation of police conduct on UC campuses.

Campus activist Honest Chung, who ran for ASUC president last spring on a platform that included police accountability, said the problem is greater than the chief.

“I’m glad he is gone, but the reality is — whoever is going to replace him — not much is probably going to change,” Chung said.
Aside from protests, Celaya admits he has had difficulty reaching one of his main goals: reducing violent street crime in areas surrounding campus. Numbers have shown an increase in the last year, following decreases in previous years. Celaya attributes this to a lack of resources and staffing levels.

“Up until this year, we’ve had a downward trend in violent crime,” Celaya said. “There has been a spike in the south campus.”
For Celaya, retirement from the campus department does not mean retirement from police work. In January, he is expected to begin as police chief for the Calistoga Police Department in Napa Valley.

The new police department will give him the opportunity to develop community plans in a population that is not constantly in flux, like that of UC Berkeley, he said.

“I’d much rather leave looking for the door than being shown the door,” Celaya said jokingly.

Chloe Hunt covers crime. Contact her at .