Three generations of “Steve Walpole”—(from left) Steve Walpole Sr., Steve Walpole Jr. and Steve Walpole III—attend the Special Olympics Torch Run in Scotts Valley last year. The community lost a significant link to its past when the elder Walpole died of bone cancer on Dec. 21, 2023. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Just before Christmas, Scotts Valley lost one of the men who was critical to shaping the city into the place it is today. It wasn’t an explorer who claimed land for a foreign government, a native warrior who resisted colonial expansion, a founding Council member or even the first police chief (that title went to Gerald Pittenger).

But when Steve Walpole Sr.—who took over the top-cop chair from Pittenger in 1986—died of bone cancer on Dec. 21, the community lost a significant link to its past.

The father of current police chief, Steve Walpole Jr., he was the sort of “old school” lawman who was respected by everyone from the average guy you meet at the bar to the municipality’s most powerful leaders (regardless of whether he’d pulled you over or not). He literally helped construct the building that hosts Council Chambers and the police station.

“City Hall was built by volunteers that included our father,” said Walpole Jr., sitting in the room where his dad once had his office, with younger brother Chris across the table. “They made it happen through hard work and determination. Nobody got paid to build this place, and we’re still using the facility today.”

Walpole began as a plumber before enlisting with the Scotts Valley Police Department in 1972—patrolling the streets with his “constant companion” Duke, a German shepherd, as one Valley Press photo caption put it. He was named Officer of the Year by the Exchange Club of Scotts Valley, within two years. 

Steve Walpole Sr. patrols with his companion Duke as a K-9 officer with the Scotts Valley Police Department in 1974. (Courtesy of Steve Walpole Jr.)

A Scotts Valley Banner article from Sept. 12, 1979, reported Walpole had become the city’s first police lieutenant. He certainly fit the profile thanks to the lampshade mustache and toothy grin in the headshot.

In 1984, Walpole graduated from an 11-week course at the FBI Academy in Virginia and was named Officer of the Year for the second time, at age 35.

“He was a hardworking guy, so he worked a lot of hours,” Walpole Jr. recalled, adding his dad helped build the snack shack at the little league fields. “He was extremely invested in the community.”

Chris said, incredibly, their dad was still able to make it out to watch most of their games.

Walpole once told of how his approach to policing had been influenced by the civil unrest of the 1960s. One news report quoted him describing how he’d attended a Vietnam War protest in Berkeley—though he wasn’t exactly attending as a passionate activist—and became outraged at how officers responded with disproportionate violence to demonstrators who were throwing rocks and cans.

Walpole carried that attitude with him as he led SVPD from 1986-2001. Scotts Valley officials say the ethos has continued to this day, with administrators bragging about how the department has been a leader in adopting body-worn cameras and releasing data about the perceived race of arrestees, to shine a light on any potential disparities.

Walpole started a drugs and alcohol-awareness program and oversaw an expansion of the force during the Silicon Valley boom years, as high-tech companies set up shop in Scotts Valley, to the level it remains at today.

“He had the ability to talk to anybody and befriend anyone,” Walpole Jr. said. “He had a gift that I don’t think you can learn.”

It wasn’t always easy being the children of a law enforcement officer.

“When you’re the police chief of a small town, your work and home life intertwine a lot,” the current chief reflected. “You’re really always on duty.”

One time, they were heading home from San Agustin Catholic Church when their dad spotted a residential burglary-in-progress. Chris remembers how he kicked them out of the unmarked police cruiser so he could initiate a pursuit.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, on Oct. 17, 1989, their father popped in to make sure the family was OK—and then disappeared.

“We didn’t see him for three days,” Walpole Jr. said. “We were glad that he was out there helping people.”

They also thought it was pretty cool their dad got to play a key role in President George H. W. Bush’s visit to Scotts Valley in the aftermath.

“My dad was in charge of coordinating with the Secret Service to make sure the president was safe,” Chris said.

He would follow in his father’s crime-stopping footsteps—becoming a deputy district attorney for Contra Costa County. Chris now lives in North Carolina, where he works as a public safety consultant.

Steve Walpole Sr. led the Scotts Valley Police Department from 1986-2001. (Courtesy of Steve Walpole Jr.)

Mayor Randy Johnson said it was Walpole who convinced him to seek political office.

Johnson recalls how, after a period of rapid growth, Scotts Valley had stagnated somewhat. The community still didn’t have a high school and Scotts Valley Drive needed major work.

When someone like Walpole Sr. asks you to put your hat into the ring, to help break the log jam, you take it seriously.

“To fight that inertia, you need someone like Steve Walpole, because cities can stall-out,” Johnson said. “I can’t think of anybody that loved the city more.”

In January, Johnson became mayor for the eighth time.

“You can probably count on your hand the number of people that had a greater impact than Steve Walpole,” he said. “It’s not by accident that we have a very safe community.”

The man was a powerful force behind the scenes, added Johnson, thinking about how local elected officials could trust Walpole’s counsel.

“You’ve lost some wisdom,” he said. “There were times when each of us went to Steve for advice—and sometimes comfort. Because he had a handle on what made Scotts Valley tick. It was old school, and yet it was a modern view.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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