Richard Brannan: Los Altos chief brought progress to police dept.

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Courtesy of Mark Brannan
Los Altos police officer Richard Brannan prepares for his first day on the job in 1954.

Richard Brannan, a former Los Altos police chief who served 33 years in city law enforcement, died Oct. 20. Mr. Brannan was 92.

Mr. Brannan was known for his progressive approach to leadership. He brought the department into the modern-day era, updating its policies and procedures and improving its equipment. Mr. Brannan hired Los Altos’ first female officer and implemented a 911 call system. He also initiated drug treatment and after-school programs.

Friends and associates described Mr. Brannan as a charismatic and effective leader, quick to give credit to others while downplaying his own accomplishments.
“He was intelligent, always concerned about his men,” said former Los Altos Mayor Art Carmichael, who served on the city council from 1976 to 1980. “He did a good job for the city.”

Mr. Brannan, an Oklahoma native, grew up in Oxford, Mich. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1948 after graduating from high school. After serving in the Korean War, he was stationed in San Diego, where he met his first wife of 27 years, Jane Ferrara. He relocated to San Jose and attended San Jose State University on the GI Bill before being lured away for a job as a reserve officer with the Los Altos Police Department. He joined in 1954, the year after the department’s April 1, 1953, inception. Mr. Brannan humorously pointed out it was April Fool’s Day. He was the fifth officer the department hired.

In 1972, Mr. Brannan attended the FBI National Academy, finishing second in his class of 100. Later, in the 1970s, he went back to school at night and earned a degree in law enforcement administration from San Jose State. He was named police chief in 1978, succeeding the retiring Roland Renshaw. Mr. Brannan served as chief until his retirement in 1987.

Climbing the ranks

Longtime friend Bob Morrison, who worked with Mr. Brannan for many years, described the early days of policing in Los Altos. He said Mr. Brannan and the other officers worked out of a “garage” on First Street, which also housed the city clerk – in those days, clerk duties were in line with city managers today. There were no radios, and officers were reached by Santa Clara County communications through call boxes.

“It was pretty rugged,” Morrison recalled.

Before long, Mr. Brannan was climbing the ranks. He was promoted to sergeant in 1957, then lieutenant in 1958, when he served as second-in-command to Police Chief Joseph H. McClelland. He later rose to captain and assistant police chief.

Morrison, who joined the department in 1965 and became a detective in 1966, remembered a tumultuous time in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when an emerging drug culture was beginning to impact teens, even in quiet suburban areas like Los Altos. He noted that a concerned mother, Dodie Alexander, addressed the issue with Mr. Brannan, who ended up participating with Alexander in the founding of the Community Health Awareness Council in 1973.

“She was the founder, but he was right there with her,” Morrison said. “He played a big role in that.”

Morrison echoed Carmichael’s view of Mr. Brannan’s “outstanding” leadership.

“He made it his policy to get along with everybody, and he was very good at including everybody in the decision-making process,” he said.

Leading by example

Mr. Brannan’s son Mark described his father as a private, humble person.

“He never told anybody what to do,” Mark said. “He led by example.”

Life lessons learned from his father included: Be honorable, work hard and do more than your share.

“He was the most honorable man I ever knew,” Mark said.

Mr. Brannan earned numerous honors for his participation in the local Lions and Los Altos Kiwanis clubs, the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce and the United Way, among his many affiliations. He received a 1987 Community Service Award from the Los Altos Board of Realtors.

After living in San Jose, Cupertino and Sunnyvale, Mr. Brannan moved his family in 1970 to a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains outside Los Gatos.
After retiring, Mr. Brannan met his second wife, Misako “Mimi” Pexton, and moved back to San Jose. He remained active, playing golf until he was 90, Morrison said.

Mr. Brannan is survived by three sons, Mark (Wendi), Michael (Denise) and Matthew, and seven grandchildren. Mimi preceded him in death by a year.

No services are planned at this time.

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