Chief Miller retires after 31 years on the SBPD

Retiring Seal Beach Police Department Chief Joe Miller, center in uniform, surrounded by his wife, three sons and employees of SBPD, including the new Chief, Phil Gonshak, front far right, during a retirement party on Nov. 27, at police headquarters. Photo by Jeannette Andruss

The way outgoing Seal Beach Police Department Chief Joe Miller tells it, he didn’t even know where Seal Beach was when he first thought to apply to the force as a recruit at Golden West College Police Academy in 1988.

“I was in the academy and, true story, they had career day,” Miller recalled in an interview last month. “Seal Beach was one of the police departments there.”

After meeting officers from SBPD, Miller wanted to join the department but remarked that he didn’t want to move to Northern California.  His instructors at the academy in Huntington Beach were puzzled, as Miller explained, and asked him, “What are you talking about? Seal Beach is five minutes away.”

“I had no idea,” Miller, 53, said with a laugh. He said that as one of seven children, it was rare for his family to venture out of their Placentia neighborhood. Miller eventually did visit Seal Beach and his heart was set on working there. “You know, you get this feeling, [Seal Beach] just had something. The beach, the pier, the vibe,” he said.

Now, 31 years later, he’s retiring, leaving the only community he’s ever served in uniform. And he has the distinction of starting his career with the Seal Beach Police Department fresh from the academy and ending it as the top cop.

“I am thankful for this community and the friends I’ve developed in the 31 plus years I have served this great town,” Miller wrote in a statement. He said that police department and city employees are “hardworking, caring and committed to this city.” He said he’ll miss those people the most. “It’s going to be super hard to leave them. They’re all such good people.”

On Nov. 27, SBPD personnel, public safety officials from the area, city leaders, family and friends attended Miller’s retirement party at police headquarters. And It proved to be an emotional day for him.

“This is the hard part,” Miller said to a reporter at the event.

He had just walked through the station, shaking hands and giving goodbye hugs to what he’s described as his “family” and made his final call over the radio in a patrol vehicle. Behind the wheel, Miller was seen fighting back tears, putting his face in his hands, visibly moved by the moment. His wife and two older sons cried while they watched Miller sign off for the last time.

“We’re proud of him,” Kasey, his wife of 22 years said.

Miller’s last official day on the job was November 30. Commander Phil Gonshak took over as chief on December 1. Miller will be recognized for his service during the Dec. 9 Seal Beach City Council Meeting. A swearing-in ceremony for Chief Gonshak will take place on December 19.

“More than half my life has been here so leaving is challenging sometimes but it is what it is. Some good things come to an end,” Miller said. But he is happy to leave while “things are good.” “I think Phil will do a good job,” he said. “The department is in a good place.”

“I along with everyone else in the organization wish him well in his retirement and are excited for him to enjoy more personal time with his family,” Gonshak wrote in an email to The Sun.

Decades serving Seal Beach

In recent interviews, Miller reflected on his three decades in Seal Beach and his career in law enforcement.

“One thing about this profession, it gives you a different type of fulfillment,” Miller explained. “I mean just the idea of catching a bad guy and preventing them from doing something to somebody is fulfilling. … So, it’s going to be hard to let go of that type of thing.”

He recalled one of his most important days on duty – Oct. 12, 2011, the day of the Salon Meritage shooting that left eight people dead, making it Orange County’s deadliest mass shooting. Miller was a sergeant at the time and described how he was the first officer to enter the salon to see the victims, some taking their last breaths. “I don’t know if I made a difference but I was able to treat the victims with respect,” Miller said.

There were many tragic scenes he responded to over the years, including numerous fatal crashes. He’s still in touch with some of the people he comforted during those calls. Miller shared the story of one mother that lost her teenage son in a rollover crash years ago.

“She still texts me,” he said and added that he recently attended an event she put on for a group she started that helps parents dealing with the death of a child. “You don’t realize how long you still impact people.”

There were also lighter moments, like Miller’s unexpected dip in a pool while responding to a call of a house party with possible drugs in College Park East. He entered the backyard in darkness and couldn’t see the pool was right under him until it was too late. “I tried to jump to the other side of the pool,” he recollected. “Only half of me made it.”

Leading SBPD during challenging time

After spending more than twenty years on the force, Miller was named Acting Chief in late 2016, but it was during a controversial and challenging time for the department.

Chief Joe Stilinovich had been put on paid administrative leave during a confidential investigation into alleged misconduct. Community members showed up at city council meetings to demand Stilinovich be reinstated. Signs popped up on lawns around town supporting him. Stilinovich ended up resigning in March of 2017. City Manager Jill Ingram named Miller to take his place.

“I believe we’ve taken great strides following some significant turmoil with the prior chief,” Miller said last month. “I think we’ve come out of it with a great relationship with the community.”

Miller said his focus when leading SBPD was to deliver the community a better level of service from his department. He was determined to hire more police officers.  After a jump in some types of crime in 2017, Miller stressed that an increased police presence was key to deterring criminals.

“This community needed more cops,” Miller said earlier this week. “I wasn’t going to sit back and watch.”

In 2018, he championed Measure BB, a one-cent sales tax increase promoted as a way to pay for more police officers. In November 2018, voters passed it. Measure BB money is expected to fund five new officer positions which brings the budgeted number of officers on the force to 38. “Getting the backing of the community to add five more cops is something that I’m proud of because I think we need them so badly,” Miller said. Miller also implemented a Community Oriented Policing program that assigned officers to specific areas of the city, including Old Town and a detective for Leisure World.

“I think the cops that we’ve hired are phenomenal, the best. Not only are they great cops, they’re great people. I think that’s critically important,” Miller said. This year he signed a new agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service to house federal detainees at the city’s jail.

“Once I got into the position, I really hope that I proved to the people that I work for, the community and the cops and city staff, I was deserving of that position, that I did them right,” Miller said.

What’s next?

When asked what his greatest accomplishment is, Miller is quick to say his three sons. “They’re phenomenal boys,” he said. His two oldest kids are students at California State University of Fullerton with his oldest playing baseball for the school. His youngest son is in first grade. He hopes to spend more time with his family in retirement.

Miller is also considering running for public office in Yorba Linda. “My hope is to be involved in local politics in the community I live in,” he said. He’s checking to see if there will be an open seat on the Yorba Linda City Council to run for in 2020.

He also intends to devote time to his real estate business, The Miller Group, which he has owned for many years. He’s in the process of remodeling a building in Yorba Linda that will house a restaurant but he’s still deciding if he will run it.

And Miller said he’s also entertaining the possibility of returning to law enforcement for another agency or as a reserve with the Seal Beach Police Department, a role that could keep him connected to Seal Beach.

“I can still contribute to the community that I’ve been with for almost 32 years of my life,” Miller said. “I can always go get a job doing what we do in law enforcement. But you can’t always go find the kind of people that are here.”