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Interim Police Chief French aims for permanent job in ‘very male-dominated field’

on October 23, 2019

RICHMOND, CA — Interim Police Chief Bisa French has thrown her hat into the ring as a search for a permanent police chief for the Richmond Police Department (RPD) is set to start in January.

“I want to make this a permanent position,” she said.

French said she has what it takes to put the department back on track and fill the gap in its numbers. She said her main focus is to reunite everyone within the department so that policemen and women are able to provide a high level of service to the Richmond community.

Embracing the challenge of being “black and blue,”  French’s candor has won her positive reviews from Richmond Mayor Tom Butt who said he’s “impressed” with the interim leader’s communication style. But the big question is whether she can rally the force behind her.

French has spent half her life within the Richmond Police Department in a 22-year career at RPD that began when she was a 22-year-old single mother supporting a toddler son.  The interim chief, who has both African American and Latina heritage, became the first woman of color to lead the department when she was named in September to succeed ex-Chief Allwyn Brown, who stepped down following a vote of no confidence by the Police Officers’ Association.

Photo courtesy of Richmond Police Department / Profile photo of, at the time, Assistant Police Chief Bisa French.

Finding a way to provide for herself and for her three-year-old son, French did what many people would not do – she became a police officer.

French had her first son when she was a single 18-year-old and credits having supportive parents who helped her through it. She had always been interested in law enforcement and at 22-years-old she made the decision to become a police officer because of her desire to serve people.

“At first, I was a little bit scared. I didn’t have anybody in my family that was in the field, but I decided that it was now or never that I take this opportunity,” French said.

The Richmond Police Department (RPD) gave her the chance she needed and put her through the local police academy.

After French became a policewoman, she went back to school to get her associate degree at Contra Costa College. She later returned to school for a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Management at San Francisco State University and finished her degree online at Union University.

“I got my bachelor’s degree right before [my son] graduated high school… It was important that I had my degree because I didn’t want him to quit…,” French said. “I didn’t want him to be in the same situation that I was in at his age.”

She said that going back to school while having a full-time job and a family was very difficult to manage. During her years at RPD, French got married.  Her husband, Lee French, is a sergeant at the Oakland Police Department. The couple had their first child, a daughter, in 2003 around the same time she returned to college.

Working the graveyard shift at the police department took time management skills and stamina most people can’t imagine. Arriving at the station at 9:30 at night, she’d work until 7:30 in the morning. Commuting by BART to San Francisco, French would take two to three classes a day at San Francisco State University. After her classes, she would jump back on BART, go home and spend some time with her two children and husband. Then came a nap before heading back to the station to restart the cycle. Acknowledging her daily drill was “extremely difficult,” she said she had to stop attending classes in person, and instead finish her degree online.

As the years passed, she stayed with the Richmond police force and had a third child, another son.   She followed the same crushing schedule – work, class, family, nap, repeat – when she returned to school to get a master’s degree in Human Resource Management while her oldest son was in school for his own post-graduate degrees.

Photo courtesy of Bisa French / Family photo in New York city to celebrate their son’s graduation.

“I figured I needed to go back to school to get my master’s degree. So I did. I went to Golden Gate University, got my master’s degree while my son got two master degrees, I guess to one up me,” French said, chuckling at the memory.

Starting out, French said, she never intended to aim for promotion.  She said she just wanted to be in a career where she could support herself and her son. However, she said that she did miss a lot of birthdays, sports games and holidays because of being an officer and that her son had to sacrifice a lot. After a time, French said that she began working harder for promotions so that she could spend those special times with her family. She began rising through the ranks.

As a young officer, French worked the regular patrols, did undercover work and was later promoted to the rank of sergeant detective. She also worked in the property crimes and domestic and sexual violence divisions. French helped create Richmond’s Family Justice Center and was later promoted to the rank of lieutenant, later rising to chief of staff to former Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus.

In 2013, French began to rack up a string of firsts. She was promoted as the first female captain of African American and Latin descent at RPD. In 2016, she rose to become the first woman of color to attain the rank of assistant chief. Then earlier this fall, after months of tension between the union and department leadership ended in a vote of no confidence in Chief Brown, French was named to the post of interim police chief.

Now French faces the challenge of maintaining peace in the streets after two recent shootings left two people dead and several more injured.  Another difficulty facing the department is how to retain and attract police officers who could make more money and better benefits by working for BART.  Meanwhile, an internal RPD struggle she’s tasked to fix is to bring cohesion to a department shaken by departures from the rank and file and turnover at the top – in spite of old ideas about gender.

Photo by Marco Torrez / Interim Police Chief Bisa French.

“This is a very male-dominated field, and I still come across people here who don’t believe that women should be in law enforcement,” French said.

She said she’s faced this kind of discrimination throughout her entire career. French said she’s noticed it especially when she’s been promoted, causing her to be challenged about certain things because she’s a female.

French said that it also can be hard to be both “black and blue”. She said that she faces many of the same problems that community members face on a daily basis. For example, when she’s out of uniform and in civilian clothes, she said she gets followed around stores by local security even though she’s the police chief of the city. Even so, she’s received early support from City Hall.

 “Since she became the acting chief, several council members including myself, were really impressed by her responsiveness and willingness to share information,” Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said. Butt said that French is very responsive to everyone, including himself. He said that she provides accurate and detailed information on important ongoing investigations and situations so that everyone is informed.

 Like all public servants who’ve sacrificed a portion of their private lives for the public good, interim chief French has dreams of doing things she didn’t have the opportunity to do when she was young. She said that she loves Europe and would like to go on a cruise around the South of France. She also would like to visit Africa, Germany and, especially, Barcelona.

 “I really want to travel once I retire with my husband…,” French said. “I want to see the world.”

But the dream is years away given the ambitious plans of Interim Chief French, whose immediate goal is nothing less than to reform relations within the force at RPD. 

“I am 44 years old, so I have at least another six years to work,” French said, “and I would love to finish off my career here as the Richmond Police Chief.”

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