Neil Cervenka, a 47-year-old ultra-marathon runner, begins work on July 25th as the new police chief in Fort Bragg. He comes to the post from Turlock, California, where he has served 22 years since beginning his police career in the US Air Force.
Cervenka replaces interim Chief John Naulty, the man brought in to transition the Fort Bragg Department following the sudden departure of former Chief Fabian Lizarraga, now in charge of the chronically understaffed police department just over the hill on Highway 20 in Willits.
Now that we have the official version, here’s the subtext:
Cervenka’s first day on the job marks the end of a process that began with the 2015 hiring of former Chief Lizarraga, who arrived at the corner of “Walk and Don’t Walk” in eccentric Fort Bragg with 37 years of experience in Los Angeles Police Department patrol cruisers and mid-level command staff positions. How well this experience prepared him for the reality of small town policing in a hard-by place like Fort Bragg is hard to say. It could be the old story of the town mouse not fitting in too well with his country cousins. But whatever the case, it seems that a split over Lizarraga’s management style and the city leadership staff spilled out into the open around the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and he left Fort Bragg suddenly in May 2020 to assume control of the police force in nearby Willits, just 25 miles west of town, over the hill on Highway 20.
If Lizarraga thought he could escape his management headaches by moving to Willits, he was sadly mistaken. It turns out he may have gone directly into the frying pan, facing two predicaments that threaten his very ability to lead the agency. First is the Alexis Blaylock case, the Willits Police Department’s first Black Female police chief and also the first to allege she was ruthlessly hounded from the job by an unrelenting barrage of racist hate and discrimination. She has a large discrimination suit pending against the City of Willits. Then there is the matter of Derek Hendry, a Lieutenant of Willits Poice cited by Baylock multiple times in her lawsuit accusing him of harassment and racism. There are claims that Hendry has been fired from the Willits Police Department. When asked about the status of Hendry’s employment, Lizarraga provided carefully parsed phrase that Hendry has been “separated from the department.”
The only thing that Lizarraga seems to have going for him at this point is that most people are distracted by the even-more disastrous police meltdown at Willits’ neighboring big-brother city of Ukiah. There, in the Mendocino County seat of government, the Ukiah Police Department is reeling after the sudden removal of Police Chief Noble Waidelich for an active criminal investigation against him for charges not yet publicly disclosed.
Also, there is the ongoing disaster of fired former Ukiah Sergeant Kevin Murray and the open question, being played out in slow motion, of how much, if any, he will ever be held to answer on charges that he raped a woman under color of authority while a Ukiah officer. Just one of many shocking developments, in that case, is the recent reduction or dropping altogether of long-standing charges of sexual violence against Murray in that case.
Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell says that it wasn’t simply a personality issue with Fabian. Over 80% of calls for police services in his city are directly related to homelessness, mental health issues, or both, and old-school policing methods were simply not working, he told us. The mayor said that without addressing these underlying social problems, they simply get worse and further eat away at essential city services.
After Lizarraga’s left the Fort Bragg Police to become the Chief of Willits Police, former Officer Naulty agreed to come out of retirement to assist his hometown as an interim Police Chief and consultant. Ironically, Naulty had applied for the Chief post when the City hired Lizarraga. Naulty worked with Norvell, City Manager Tabatha Miller, and others to set the template for a less confrontational approach to the mental health and homeless population, one that emphasizes mental health service delivery instead of law enforcement.
What makes this a bit of a different story is that Fort Bragg went out and put some services out on the street in addition to the words and models on paper. Mayor Norvell said a $275,000 grant from the US Department of Justice was secured to help implement the plan and buy a Dodge van from the local dealer. That van was outfitted and is responding to calls for service on the street in Fort Bragg day in and day out. So the “Crisis Response Unit” and the 2.5 full-time staff positions that were funded from the DOJ Grant are working. Mayor Norvell says the new approach is helping: “A better term for our van is actually Crisis Prevention Unit.”
County supervisor Ted Williams said in an interview that the city’s approach to homelessness and mental health is “a model for others to follow.” He argues that cities like Fort Bragg may be better able to tackle certain elements of homelessness than the county with its many layers of cumbersome bureaucracy. Williams also observed that local governments of all types – county, city, and tribal – are the safety net of last resort in America and that local governments in the United States end up dealing with problems that are created at the federal level.
Supervisor Williams said Fort Bragg’s delivery of services at the point of need in the street has been more responsive and targeted than the County, which has had access to many millions of dollars collected as part of “Measure B”, the local option sales tax increase passed by the voters several years ago. But he says both of these efforts, and more will be needed in the future to meet the ongoing challenge of housing inequality and health services.
For his part, Cervenka brings a long and stable track record from his time in Turlock, where he began his police career after service in the United States Air Force security police.
Mayor Norvell is optimistic about the new chief and the new approach. Cervenka has finished 50-mile marathon races. He is probably going to need his long game for this next gig.