As Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. enters the next phase of his longstanding law enforcement career, he will move to a place that has special significance in his life.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is more than just an airport to Butts — it’s a place that reminds him of his childhood and spending time with his father.
Butts remembers the times when his father, who served in the Air Force, took him as a child to watch the planes land at the airport instead of going to the movies.
Those were special times in his life, he recalls, and now he will be taking over a top law enforcement position at LAX, as well as three other Southern California airports.
“For me to come there (LAX) is an emotionally significant accomplishment,” Butts said of his new position with Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA).
Butts, 52, will step down as Santa Monica police chief after 15 years to assume the new position of deputy executive director of airport law enforcement and protection services for LAWA.
He will oversee the nation’s largest airport law enforcement and security organization at LAWA, the city agency that operates LAX and three other airports, Palmdale Regional, Ontario International and Van Nuys.
The airports serve more than 68 million passengers a year.
“To have the opportunity to be responsible for the safety of 68 million people who use the airports is an awesome responsibility and it’s an honor,” said Butts, a Ladera Heights resident.
Butts expects to start the new position in the late summer, after helping to ensure an “orderly and effective transition” of command at the Santa Monica Police Department. Santa Monica city officials plan to conduct a nationwide recruitment for a new police chief.
“Our Santa Monica police officers are the best of the best,” Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown said. “The leadership transition will be smooth and continued public safety always a priority.”
With his new job, Butts will be responsible for leading the more than 1,200 sworn and civilian personnel assigned to protect and serve the four LAWA airports. He will also collaborate and coordinate law enforcement and security duties of more than 4,000 federal and local officers.
Among the outside agencies he will work with are the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration and Secret Service.
Butts was selected for the position over 48 applicants who represented a wide range of law enforcement, security and aviation backgrounds, LAWA officials said.
“After a six-month nationwide search, we found the most qualified law enforcement professional for this important position right in our backyard in the neighboring community of Santa Monica,” LAWA executive director Lydia Kennard said.
“We believe Chief Butts’ commitment to the concept of community-based policing combined with his outstanding record in public safety, recruiting, training and harnessing technology makes him the ideal choice for this position.”
Butts said he accepted the new position at LAWA because it’s an opportunity to “do another good thing” while he’s young enough and he’ll be able to serve a larger number of people.
While Butts said he is ready for the next phase of his career, he is proud of what he has accomplished over the past 15 years in Santa Monica.
“Overall, it’s been absolutely wonderful,” Butts said of his time in Santa Monica.
The experience has had “peaks and valleys,” but the police department has been able to completely revolutionize its technology and ability to suppress crime, he said.
Under Butts’ leadership, violent crime in Santa Monica has reached its lowest level since 1957, which he says is “particularly significant” because the department has only kept records since 1956.
The city crime rate has been reduced by 63 percent since 1993 and citizen complaints against officers have dropped by more than 50 percent during that time.
Other department achievements that Butts is proud of are cleaning up drugs in Palisades Park, developing neighborhood centered policing, “drastically diminishing” gang violence in the Pico Neighborhood and reducing the homicide rate to an average of about one to two per year currently.
The police chief job has also had low periods for Butts, such as the death of Ricardo Crocker, a “well loved” Santa Monica police officer who was killed last year while serving with the Marines in the Iraq war.
What Butts may take as his crowning achievement is helping to change the culture of the department and diversify the police force, which he said was achieved through the “quality and excellence” of its officers.
“I’m most proud of how the people in the department have developed and in turn are embraced by the community,” Butts said.
As he leaves the department, Butts said he believes there is “talent” within the organization to take over his position and lead the department into the future.
Some high ranking Santa Monica police officers were all in agreement that Butts has changed the culture of the department in his time as police chief.
“His influence has been profound,” said Captain Jacqueline Seabrooks, who has served for 24 years. “He took an organization that was definitely lacking and modernized it.”
“I think he completely changed the culture and the way we do business in this community as a police department,” said Captain Wendell Shirley, who has served for 12 years. “It’s a great loss for the city but everyone here is so happy for him.”
Deputy Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez, who has been at the department for 26 years, added, “It’s been just a tremendous experience to watch the organization go through this metamorphosis over the last 15 years.”
Some officers said Butts has even had an influence on their career decisions.
“I was on my way out when he came, but I was so impressed with him and his work ethic that I put law school aside,” Captain Mark Smiley said. “He convinced me that this is a place to stay.”
Before moving to Santa Monica, Butts served nearly 20 years at the City of Inglewood Police Department as a police officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and deputy chief.
Becoming the Santa Monica police chief meant a great deal for Butts because his late father was able to see his son achieve success.
“He got to see his dream that his children were able to achieve based on their ability,” Butts said of his father.
Butts expects the focus of his new law enforcement position to be “much more broad” as an intergovernmental liaison, but with the same primary goal of protecting people.
“My main responsibility is to do on a larger scale what I do here (in Santa Monica) — make sure the bad things never happen,” he said.
His first goal at LAWA will be to select a new police chief for the airport police at LAX.
He said his most immediate challenge will be to “dissect and understand” the security systems in place at the airports.
He also plans to meet with all the counterparts at the state, county and federal level to understand where the airports are in the coordination of security services.
While Butts said he is excited about his new opportunity, he will most definitely miss the people and city that he has called home for the last 15 years.
“I’m going to miss it here,” Butts said of Santa Monica. “It’s like leaving your family and friends.
“But this is a natural progression and a natural challenge and I look forward to it.”