SLO police chief quits, takes new job

Chief Deanna Cantrell


San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell, who has faced criticism for incidents ranging from losing her gun in a restaurant bathroom to her handling of Black Lives Matter protests, announced Thursday she is leaving the city of SLO to become the top cop of the Bay Area city of Fairfield.

Cantrell took over as chief in Jan. 2016, after serving 21 years in the Mesa, Arizona Police Department. Former SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig hired Cantrell, choosing her over both SLO Police Department’s captains, who had been rotating as acting chief at the time.

The past few years, Cantrell has been under fire over her lack of transparency, personal failures, and officer misconduct.

Cantrell left her pistol, a Glock with a 6-round magazine, in the bathroom of an El Pollo Loco at about noon on July 10, 2019. A short time later, Cantrell realized she did not have her weapon and returned to the restaurant bathroom. The pistol was not there.

Cantrell then claimed that she immediately reported her gun stolen, but several officers said her attempt to coverup the theft of her gun risked officer safety and led to the search of the home of a man incorrectly identified as the person suspected of taking the chief’s gun.

Typically, after a loaded police firearm is stolen, a be on the lookout (BOLO) is put out to area law enforcement, not only to help quickly recover the stolen weapon, but also to protect officer and public safety.

However, for the first two hours, Cantrell conducted the investigation into her stolen gun without reporting the theft. It would be more than eight hours before a BOLO was issued.

A surveillance video showed a clean-shaven man entering the bathroom after Chief Cantrell left. After receiving a tip that the man in the video resembled Cheyne Orndoff, police descended on Orndoff’s home, even though he looked nothing like the suspect. Orndoff had a full beard and mustache.

Without a warrant, police searched Orndoff’s home, put his daughters, then 7 and 9, in foster care, and arrested him for child neglect because of a dirty house and paraphernalia they found in his locked bedroom.

A month later, in June 2019, Cantrell’s personal car was stolen from Santa Margarita. Officers found the car six hours later in Daly City, with a naked woman inside.

In Sept. 2019, officer Josh Walsh shot and killed a dog while responding to a possible burglary. Even though Walsh and another officer quickly determined the burglary report was inaccurate — just a resident fixing a broken window — Walsh appeared frightened, cursed at the resident and shot the dog.

Throwing her support behind Walsh, the chief claimed the dog charged at the officer, and refused to release body camera footage of the incident.

Following the string of incidents, Cantrell began applying for jobs with other cities. Cantrell began the recruitment process with Fairfield in May 2020, according to a city press release.

Cantrell said she will forever be grateful for her time in San Luis Obispo.

“I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to lead the amazing men and women in the SLOPD that serve this complex community every day with respect, partnerships, integrity and dedication,” Cantrell said in the statement. “I am thankful to have been able to work alongside a dedicated and hardworking city council, city manager and department head team. Further, I could not have not have been successful without the devoted members of the police roundtable and PACT who serve to bring policing and all members of our community, business leaders, diverse perspectives and opinions together for mutual understanding.”

San Luis Obispo City Manager Derek Johnson issued a statement praising Cantrell as “an exceptional leader and an expert in policing and community engagement.” Mayor Heidi Harmon also released a statement commending Cantrell’s leadership, despite having recently criticized the police department.

Harmon and Cantrell fell on opposing sides of the Black Lives Matter policing debate. Harmon is a supporter of SLO protest leader Tianna Arata, whom police officers arrested on July 21. Some supporters of Arata recently called for Cantrell’s resignation.

Cantrell’s last day on the job in San Luis Obispo will be Sept. 30. The City of SLO will begin a national recruitment for a new chief in the coming months.