San Jose, CA’s secretive search for new police chief draws ire of community groups

The Brass Key | September 2, 2010 | Comments (0)

During their most recent nationwide hunts for new police chiefs, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle and Los Angeles told their residents the names of the finalists. Some held open forums for their citizens to hear the candidates speak, ask them hard questions and size them up face to face.

The only name San Jose city leaders plan to tell residents, about five months from now, is that of the person they will have just chosen as the city’s top cop.

City Manager Debra Figone has drawn the curtains on the search for a new chief, arguing that confidentiality is necessary to attract a large pool of qualified candidates.

Already some community groups, such as the ACLU and NAACP, are calling for a more open process to head a department that’s come under fire for aggressive tactics and what some call racial profiling.

They worry the decision on who will replace Chief Rob Davis is too important and involves too much public trust to be decided behind closed doors.

“Keeping secret the final candidates of the San Jose police chief position is a sad commentary about the city’s attitude regarding its citizens,” said activist Wiggsy Sivertsen. “Not only because it makes it clear that citizens’ input is not important in the process of selection, but it also has the unintended consequence of indicating to the candidates that citizen input is not valuable.”

At least one city councilman, Sam Liccardo, said he is worried that a public process would scare away “the best and the brightest candidates” who may not want their current employers to discover they are looking elsewhere.

But he said he saw a “middle ground” and planned to ask Figone about the possibility of disclosing the names of the finalists to the public.

Figone emphasized that community input would come through an ongoing series of public meetings, coffee shop conversations, online surveys and the participation of a community panel sworn to secrecy.

Figone’s process is widely used in other cities and is not new in San Jose, where it is used to pick other department heads — such as the recent choice of Fire Chief Willie McDonald.

But some critics of the process pointed to the city’s botched attempt to pick an independent police auditor two years ago. After a similarly secretive search, the council tapped Chris Constantin, without revealing publicly that his brother was a San Jose police officer. When that was disclosed by the Mercury News, Constantin quickly resigned.

“The city manager would do much to demonstrate a sincere attempt at repairing an already strained relationship between the police department and important segments of the community,” said Bea Mendez, a member of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, a loose-knit group of community organizations.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, said choosing between an open and closed process poses a dilemma.

“One of the challenges cities face is the balance between the community’s right to know versus the city’s ability to attract candidates who do not want their names out there because it would hurt them professionally,” said Wexler, whose agency often runs recruiting for major cities. “There is a trade-off.”

Seattle officials said that they probably lost some good candidates for the police chief job when they ramped up the public portion of their process. But, they said, the transparency was worth it, and they ended up with a rich pool of candidates.

“In Seattle, there needs to be a lot of public buy-in for something as important as the police chief,” said mayoral spokesman Aaron Pickus.

The city disclosed the names of the semifinalists and explained why they were chosen. Newly elected Mayor Mike McGinn set up a televised, online public forum featuring the finalists: Interim Chief John Diaz, Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel and East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis.

The candidates were required to answer essay questions on such topics as public safety management through major budget cuts and racial disparities in policing. Their answers were widely published. The city eventually tapped Diaz, a Bay Area native, as chief.

Rob Davis knows how it feels to be in the middle of a public search. He applied earlier this year for the chief’s job in Dallas, which announced he and four others were the finalists. In the end, an insider got the job.

But many in and outside of the department believe Davis became a “lame duck,” losing clout and credibility when it was revealed that he was looking to leave.

Davis said open processes put chiefs in “an extremely difficult position.”

Figone’s process, the outgoing chief said, is “exactly right.”

Source: Sean Webby Mercury News

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Category: Search News

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