Woodlake Chief of Police running for Sheriff

By Reggie Ellis

John Zapalac learned much of what he knows about law enforcement from the Tulare County Sheriff's Office. Now, he feels he has the experience to lead it.

After eight years as Woodlake's Chief of Police, Zapalac has announced he will run for Sheriff against incumbent Bill Wittman in the June 6 Primary Election.

&#8220It's been 12 years since we had a new sheriff and I think it is time for new leadership and a new direction,” Zapalac said.

Now in his eighth year as Woodlake's chief, Zapalac began his career as a reserve officer with the Orange County Sheriff's Office in 1978. He was hired by the Tulare County Sheriff's Office in 1981 where he started as a deputy in the jail before moving to patrol. During his 16-year career with TCSO, Zapalac worked in drug enforcement, property crimes and, for his last nine years, worked more than 200 homicide cases.

&#8220I found it very rewarding and challenging,” Zapalac said. &#8220It gave me a broad base of knowledge that I brought with me to Woodlake.”

Zapalac was hired as interim chief of the Woodlake Police Department in 1997. At that time the department had a poor image with the community. Several black eyes involving Woodlake officers combined with a high turnover ratio had left the department with too many inexperienced officers and not enough veterans to guide them.

&#8220The situation was not good when I got here,” Zapalac said. &#8220But we have really improved the education, experience and quality of the officers in the department.”

Zapalac challenged officers to be more proactive, getting to know an individual's family and history to keep a better eye on developing situations and identify potential problems before they happen. Much of the work has been done with juveniles, where Zapalac holds a camp at his home in Lemon Cove four times a year to build trust between officers and kids.

&#8220I think we have worked hard to build trust with the kids,” Zapalac said. &#8220We have restored the department's integrity within the eyes of the community.”

Zapalac has emphasized continued training and education for all officers, which has prompted more officers to remain and the education of those officers to be higher. While the average length of stay used to be six months to a year, most of the department now has at least five years of experience in Woodlake. Four officers currently have bachelor's degrees and two are completing associate degrees.

&#8220By hiring quality people, they have the drive and motivation to want to educate themselves,” he said. &#8220We have raised the bar on entry level officers to 30 college units from none and have seen a huge decrease in citizen complaints.”

The focus on education has also improved community relations. &#8220It just makes sense that a more educated officer is going to be more patient and understanding with someone in the public,” he said. &#8220I will bring the same type of leadership to the Sheriff's Office.”

The Sheriff's Office has had its problems in recent years. For several years the department has been forced to downstaff due to dwindling revenues at the county level. Less officers covering a broader area of an already large geographic county is somewhat of a disservice to the public living in the unincorporated communities, such as Three Rivers and Lemon Cove, where Zapalac has lived since moving to Tulare County. The foothills is home to many of the county's smaller communities that do not have their own police departments, such as Woodville, Poplar, Strathmore, Springville and Ivanhoe.

According to the Sheriff's Office, there are 471 sworn deputies to cover the more than

4,800 square miles in Tulare County, according to the Census.

&#8220Every department in a rural area has to deal with budget cuts,” Zapalac said. &#8220We have dealt with them in Woodlake but have managed to improve our department. There's no reason I can't do it there.”

Incumbent Bill Wittman, in his 12th year as Tulare County Sheriff, said despite the budget cuts, TCSO has improved and is one of the most highly trained forces in the Valley. Since taking office, Wittman has overseen the formation of the Rural Crimes Task Force, a pilot program started in Tulare County that is now being used in eight Valley counties; a CalMeth team to fight the growing crime of meth labs in rural areas; and opened the Pretrial Facility up to federal prisoners to keep it running closer to capacity; and cracked down on drug cartels growing marijuana gardens in Sequoia National Park.

&#8220The men and women of this department have done a wonderful job,” Wittman said. &#8220We have lost millions from our budget and have asked them to do more and they came through. That's why I'm running again, because I am proud to work with them.”

He said the department has done a good job of actively seeking grants to fund additional officers for drug enforcement and also asking for private donations to help with funding.

&#8220We have a lot of support from the public,” Wittman said. &#8220Not one member of our K-9 corps had to purchase their own dog.”

Wittman also pointed to TCSO's Volunteers In Patrol (VIP) program that is now 400-500 strong; a volunteer Search and Rescue Posse; and the Tulare County Peace Officer Memorial, which was completely built by donations.

&#8220That is what I am most proud of,” Wittman said. &#8220When I took office I promised that those who gave their lives would never be forgotten. That was a great project that the people of Tulare County made happen.”

Zapalac said he agrees that there are many good deputies working in the Sheriff's Office and has first-hand knowledge of the training they receive, which he has passed onto his own staff. However, he contends that TCSO has become stagnant in its growth and that new leadership is what's needed to improve.

It wasn't a decision that Zapalac jumped into. He considered running four years ago. He even pulled papers, but never turned them in. He took the time to talk with his family, friends and colleagues to carefully consider the decision.

&#8220It just wasn't the right time,” he said. &#8220Now I feel I have the support I need to run.”

Zapalac has already received the blessing of the city of Woodlake's administration and councilmembers. If elected, the city would have until January 2007 to find a replacement and provide a transition period for the newly appointed chief.

&#8220I think I can accomplish the same things at the county that I have in Woodlake,” Zapalac said. &#8220There is support for new leadership and I think I can provide it.”

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