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Final two candidates for Long Beach police commissioner square off in virtual debate

Long Beach has two final candidates in the running for police commissioner.
Long Beach has two final candidates in the running for police commissioner.
Christina Daly/Herald

It wasn’t advertised as a debate, but in a 90-minute virtual session Tuesday night, the two final candidates for Long Beach police commissioner discussed the importance of community policing, the Black Lives Matter movement, budgeting and officer training.

The overriding question was whether Acting Police Commissioner Phil Ragona, 57, who has the benefit of long-term familiarity with Long Beach, or the Nassau County Police Department’s chief of support, Ronald Walsh, 50, who has experience with a major police department, would be a better fit for the city.

Over the past few months, the number of candidates for the job of top cop in Long Beach has been whittled down from about a dozen to Ragona and Walsh.

City Manager Donna Gayden will ultimately decide who will get the job, and oversee a department of about 60 officers. The police budget makes up 24-25 percent of the city's $85.6 million budget.

Additionally, the Long Beach PBA, which has been working without a contract since 2015, is in the middle of often-contentious negotiations with the city. An arbitrator recently ruled against raises for the PBA, ruling the union plans to fight.

In a discussion moderated by Greg Peterson, a consultant hired by the city for the occasion, Ragona and Walsh agreed that they are deeply committed to community policing, the idea that officers on the beat should become familiar with members of the community.

“Community policing is a philosophy,” said Walsh, a veteran of the NCPD. “We need to build trust. We need to truly listen to people.”

Ragona said that under his leadership, community policing is already taking place. Long Beach police officers, he said, walk the streets and enjoy an excellent relationship with residents.

Asked by Peterson moderator why he wanted to be police commissioner, Walsh said he had fielded the question many times before. “This is basically a calling for me,” he said. “I love what I do.”

Responding to the same question, Ragona said, “I’ve been working for Long Beach for 35 years. I pounded a beat.” He said he had worked his way up the ranks to become a sergeant and a lieutenant. He retired in 2013, but was called back to duty in 2013 when Commissioner Ed Ryan retired. The city has been seeking a permanent police commissioner since the retirement of Michael Tangney almost two years ago.

Peterson asked both men to comment on racism and the Black Lives Matter. “Racism exists,” Ragona said. “I’m a big fan of what’s going on now,” he added, referring to calls for justice for Black people. “All of our departments must have a plan for police reform.”

Ragona pointed out that chokeholds are prohibited in the department, and that “racism will never be tolerated. I don’t believe we have a racist on the force.”

Walsh said that when he worked at the Nassau County Police Academy, he spoke often about “implicit bias,” the notion that people have biases that they are not even aware of.

“People’s civil rights should never be violated,” Walsh said.

Both said that police training is of utmost importance, and must include better ways for officers to deal with the community members they serve.

Each man maintained that he was the better candidate. Walsh argued that the Long Beach department needed to improve its relationship with residents of the largely Black North Park community. “I shouldn’t have a desk,” he said. “I will be out in the community. My main focus will be to meet people who have never been involved with policing before.”

Ragona noted that, years ago, the city hired an outsider — whom he did not name — to be police commissioner. “He didn’t last very long,” Ragona said, because of his unfamiliarity with the city.

“Having someone come in from a bigger department doesn’t make sense,” Ragona added, an assertion Walsh understandably disagreed with.

Correction: The budget for the city's police department is 24-25 percent of Long Beach's $85.6 million budget. The figures were incorrect in some printed editions. We regret the error.