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Monday, February 05, 2007

Commentary: Police Chief Hiring Process Lacks Public Input

Last week there was an announcement from the City of Davis that Seattle Police Captain Landy Black would be making a visit to Davis and have a chance to meet the community--for half an hour prior to Tuesday's City Council Meeting. So for half an hour, Cpt. Black will be in a public room so that the public can meet the person who is realistically the only remaining candidate for the police chief position. Basically any citizen interested in the process can shake the man's hand. There is certainly not going to be the opportunity to do much past that. I find this a very disturbing development in what has already been a disconcerting process.

This is a most unfortunate development for the very reason that the Police Chief position is probably the most important hire that City Manager Bill Emlen will making during his tenure. Given the turmoil of the last year, this is a hire that can change the course of the department and really help to heal the wounds in the community. The wrong hire could set this process back another ten years. That is how crucial things are. The community in many ways is in a waiting pattern to see which direction the police department is going to go. And yet in many ways, my most feared scenario has already been played out.

The final seven candidates were kept secret. There were assurances made that there would be public scrutiny on the finalists for the position. Yet a week or two ago, we were told that it was down to three candidates and those names were still kept secret. Only now with only one candidate remaining, is a name even revealed. But guess what, it is only one name and so while they are saying they have not made a decision to hire this individual, the only realistic fallback is for them to start the hiring process once again. What is the chance that they will get a better candidate next time? Not great. So most likely Landy Black, will be the next police chief of the city of Davis.

The suggestion has been made already that the Davis Police Chief position is a difficult one to fill. Some will blame the turmoil of the last year for that. However, you can go further back than that. You have Former Chief Phillip Coleman who had to retire after allegations of sexual misconduct. Then Former Chief Jerry Gonzalez was forced out with a no confidence vote by the DPOA (Davis Police Officers' Association). After a short term from Martin Ruiz, you have Chief Jim Hyde who resigned abruptly in 2006. Some have suggested that Davis is not the place to have your first job as police chief or city manager, and yet if this hire goes through we will have a first time police chief and city manager.

Others have questioned the quality of the applicants. Frankly, that's not even something I am prepared to do at this point. I simply have not received enough information on Captain Landy Black to know if he would make a good Police Chief. Nor do I have enough information to reach the conclusion as to whether or not I think he would be a good hire or a bad hire. It is unfortunate because I would prefer to be able to give the new Chief strong support as I was able to give the Police Ombudsman strong support PRIOR to his hiring.

There are a few troubling aspects of the way this process has been conducted. First, you have a large number of individuals who voiced serious problems with the police department last year. And while it is most likely true Chief Hyde left for purposes that had nothing to do with the HRC and the police controversy and in fact might have gone shortly even if he had not taken the position in Antioch, it is also true that that controversy played a role in the problems faced by the police department. (And it is important to realize that there are very serious administrative problems facing the police department that have nothing to do with the controversies of last year and those most likely would have force Hyde out even without the controversies).

So wouldn't you want some of the civil rights groups involved in the screening of police chief candidates? Wouldn't you want them to at least meet the individuals prior to hiring them? Wouldn't you want some sort of contact between the groups that were criticizing the operations of the police department and a new chief? And yet, no attempt was made by the city to arrange such a meeting.

The city seems to feel like if they opened the candidate to such public scrutiny they would never hire anyone. Are the candidates that sensitive? If so, perhaps this is not the place for them. You would think that most high ranking police officers would enjoy the opportunity to become a police chief. Moreover, they would face the community fire at some point if they are hired--why not face the fire before they decide to disrupt their entire life and move 1000 miles from Seattle to Davis. You might as well prepare them for that fire in advance so they know exactly what they are getting themselves into. The last thing I think you would want is a person to be hired and then run off following a short amount of time because they cannot handle the pressures and scrutiny of being a police chief in Davis. And while I appreciate that Landy Black was a Precinct Captain in Seattle and that his Precinct was as large as the Davis Police Department, he has not faced Davis yet.

My second concern with this process is that the public only received a token opportunity to meet this person in advance. Several people have informed me there were extensive public meetings when they hired Chief Hyde and that enabled people to meet him, talk to him, question him. Half an hour in a meet and greet is basically no public process. Realistically, he can shake a few people's hands. He will not get to say much more than that. If this is the process, I would prefer no opportunity to meet the police chief. Let us not pretend that this is something more than what it is.

The city maintains that this is more than most cities do. I have no way to know if this is true or not, but it really does not matter. I do not think we should allow the decisions of other cities to govern how we in Davis choose to conduct our governing process. Davis is a unique city and in many ways given the public rancor last year, you would think that the city would want to smooth over this hire with as many people as possible. Unless they think that somehow the problems have all gone away--which I do not believe they have.

Third, the point was made that this was not a political hire, but rather the hiring of a city employee. Then the question was asked if I believed that all department heads should be hired in a somewhat similar process. I certainly would not be opposed to that. But I think that question really ignores the unique nature of the police chief. In many ways, it really is a political position in the sense of the controversy that followed from last year. Moreover, I do not recall people marching against the public works department down Russell Blvd last year, people cramming into City Hall over their treatment by parks and recs officials, or people speaking out against the City Works department employees. So to act as though all department heads are the same and should have the same process seems a bit ludicrous.

And perhaps I am overstating the city's position here, which is not my intention. I have different goals and concerns than the city in this area. However, I think there needs to be a more open public process for the hiring of someone like a police chief than the public works director.

The police are in very direct contact with the citizenry and it is a very delicate job in that you work with people who may be violating the law or accused of violating the law. Officers enforce laws and that requires people be fined or detained. That is very different than any other department. When a large group--even if they are a small minority within the overall population--complains about disparate treatment, there is a difference in how the process should work for the person who more than anyone else will be in charge of changing the tone in the police department and the communication between the police department and the city.

In the end, I am not asking that we take a poll of the populace in this hiring. I am not asking that the public get to vote on this hiring. All I am asking from the start was for a reasonable public process to occur so that we could scrutinize and vet the new police chief candidate or candidates. In the end, this feels more like a fiat accompli.

We need a good and strong police chief and one that can realistically lead this department for the next 10 years and stop this revolving door of police chiefs. Unfortunately, I just have no solid basis at this point to have that kind of faith in this process. I wish the city would have involved more of the citizens in this process who had been critical of the past chief and his department.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting