Up until last week, Captain Darin Lenyi spent his entire professional career working for the Laguna Beach Police Department.
Unlike most career cops who switch departments seeking fresh assignments and promotions, Lenyi, at 20, started as an unsworn beach patrol officer and never left. He signed on fulltime as a sworn officer in 1988 and moved up the ranks to fill varying positions including detective, field services division commander and interim police chief.
After 28 years on duty in Laguna, Lenyi pinned on a new badge as police chief in Placentia on Wednesday, Oct. 19. And yet the new environs are anything but unfamiliar.
“It totally feels like a homecoming,” said Lenyi, who attended high school in the north-county town and started down his career path as a 16-year-old Explorer Scout with the department he now leads. His mother still lives in the city where he and a brother grew up and he attended Valencia High School.
“It was a unique opportunity to go back where it all started for me,” Lenyi said.
Lenyi succeeds Ronald Lowenberg, who has served as an interim police chief since April, said City Admininstrator Damien R. Arrula in a statement last week. Lenyi holds degrees from Southern California College and National University and attended the FBI Academy while working in Laguna.
“We’re proud of his accomplishment moving on for a more senior position,” said police Chief Laura Farinella, who was hired by Laguna Beach in March 2015 after a 25-year stint in Long Beach.
Lenyi also applied unsuccessfully for the chief’s job in Laguna, a process that prepared him for Placentia’s even more grueling evaluation, which included interview panels with the public, professionals, union representatives and department heads.
But aside from the job interview prep, Lenyi also appreciates Farinella for pressing supervisors to seek new ideas and to be open to change.
He said job dissatisfaction was not a factor in seeking the post in Placentia, but recognizes his own job stability is atypical. “You don’t see many people who make it that long,” he said, noting many of his peers retire early due to injuries.
“It sounds corny, but it was calling to me,” said Lenyi, 50, who expects to spend the remainder of his career in Placentia before retiring. He and his wife Suzi are the parents of two teen-agers, Brandon and Lauren.
Along the way, Lenyi’s tasks in Laguna ranged from the adrenalin-pumping — an internet sting of pedophiles or a lethal shoot-out with a robber who had wounded two others – to celebrity encounters – such as orchestrating security for a visit by President Obama. The experience that left the deepest emotional scar came in 2013 with the death of motor Officer Jon Coutchie in a traffic collision.
“Losing an on-duty police officer impacted me and is my biggest fear as chief,” Lenyi said. “It is devastating to not only the family, but the department, individuals, community and those in command.”
Lenyi says the police departments of Placentia and Laguna Beach are nearly equal in manpower at 85 employees and 50 sworn officers, though 52,000 people live in his hometown of 6.6 square miles. Laguna, at half the population, spreads over 9.8 square miles.
“There’s no beach and no sand and we don’t have the influx of tourists,” Lenyi said.
And likely he’ll earn close to what the package received by Placentia’s deputy police chief, Ward Smith, who received $257,000 a year, including benefits, in 2014, the most recent figures available at Transparent California, a website on public employee compensation.
Despite familiarity with the geography, Lenyi knows he faces the same challenges of any new department head, learning partnerships and relationships.
This past Thursday, though, he returned to Laguna for a send-off toast among co-workers at Hennessey’s.
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