Three finalists for Seattle Police Chief selected

This afternoon, the three finalists for the position of Chief of Police were announced: one from Minneapolis, one from Pittsburgh, and one from Austin. All three are men; two are people of color. But the list of three finalists is not sitting well with some stakeholders.

There are two stories here: the candidates themselves, and the process that generated the three finalists. Let’s start with the candidates:

Eddie Frizell, an Inspector with the Minneapolis Police Department, where he has been employed for 25 years. Frizell also holds the rank of Colonel in the Minnesota Army National Reserve, and during his 28 years in the Reserve he served a tour of duty in Iraq. Frizell is currently not on good terms with his bosses in the Minneapolis Police; according to local Minneapolis station KSTP, he took six months off in 2013 to run for Hennepin County Sheriff. Shortly after losing the election and returning to his position as Deputy Chief, he was demoted all the way down to Lieutenant. He subsequently sued, arguing that the move was retaliatory and violated his protections under Minnesota law as a veteran; the case was dismissed in 2016. Last year, Frizell was promoted to Inspector.

Cameron McLay, former Chief of Police for the City of Pittsburgh from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that position, he was a Police Captain in Madison, Wisconsin.  McLay was hired by Pittsburgh as a reformer who could build trust between the community and the police department. Two years later he resigned, claiming that he had done all he could do in the position; he is indeed credited for starting to rebuild trust with the community, but at the cost of increased animosity with the police officers’ union. McLay was a strong advocate in Pittsburgh for racial-bias training and for community policing strategies. He is currently living in Madison with his family.

Ely Reyes, Assistant Chief of the Austin Police Department where he has served for 22 years. Prior to joining the Austin Police, Reyes served in the Army for six years and did tours of service in Panama, South Korea, and Cuba. Unlike the other two candidates, Reyes has largely stayed out of the headlines.

Back in December, Mayor Durkan announced that she was appointing a 25-person search committee to conduct a national search for the city’s new Police Chief, to succeed Kathleen O’Toole. That committee included a diverse set of representatives from the community, and had four co-chairs:

  • Tim Burgess, former Mayor and City Council member, and also a former Seattle police detective;
  • Colleen Echohawk, Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club and a member of the Community Police Commission;
  • Sue Rahr, Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and former King County Sheriff;
  • Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director at the ACLU and director of the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality.
Search committee co-chair Colleen Echohawk
Search committee co-chair Jeffery Robinson

The search committee began meeting in January, and ran a large community outreach and input-gathering process through the end of March According to the Search Committee, they received over 2600 responses to an online survey asking for input from the public on the selection of a new police chief. The city published a summary report of the public input received. This past Monday (March 21), they concluded their deliberations by recommending five names for consideration. In addition to the three named above, their list included:

  • Jorge Villegas, Assistant Chief for the Los Angeles Police Department;
  • Carmen Best, Interim Chief for the Seattle Police Department and former Deputy Chief under O’Toole.

And this is where things get a bit complicated — and heated.

The Seattle City Charter dictates the process by which a new Chief of Police is appointed:

The Chief of Police shall be appointed by the Mayor, subject to confirmation by a majority vote of all members of the City Council. He or she shall be selected by the Mayor from among the three highest ranking candidates in a competitive examination to be conducted under the direction of the Mayor.

The competitive examinations shall adequately test the qualifications of all candidates for Chief of Police, and all records of such examinations shall be filed with the City Council by the Mayor together with his or her appointment of the Chief of Police. Such records shall be open to public inspection for at least seven days prior to the City Council taking action on said appointment.

In addition to the Search Committee, the Mayor appointed an “examination committee” to conduct the competitive examination and narrow the list to three candidates. That committee consisted of former King County Executive Ron Sims, and four of the Mayor’s own staff: Senior Deputy Mayor Michael Fong, Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, legal counsel Ian Warner, and public safety advisor Barney Melekian. According to Burgess, the Search Committee co-chairs delivered to the Mayor and the examination committee the five names on Tuesday morning, and the examination committee members administered the “competitive examination” this week in a private process outside the purview of the search committee or the public. That process is purported to include (but was not limited to) extensive background checks on the five candidates as well as requiring each of the candidates to provide written answers to a list of questions.

But in the Tuesday meeting where the Search Committee recommendations were delivered, the Mayor and examination committee received something else: an additional set of recommendations and findings written by just the four co-chairs, based upon their own interviews, research and deliberations. Among their recommendations was a key — and unanimous — one: according to Burgess, they said,” We think the Police Department needs another outside Chief of Police.” In this afternoon’s press conference, Burgess explained their rationale for that recommendation: that there is culture change still needed within the department that would best be driven by an outsider. “While the department has made tremendous progress, there is still much work to do.”

Search committee co-chair Tim Burgess

However, advocates of Best’s candidacy took exception to her not making the list of finalists, and had strong criticism for the secretive process this week that led to her being eliminated. This afternoon, Search Committee member (and CPC co-chair) Enrique Gonzalez joined with another CPC co-chair, Rev. Harriett Walden, to denounce both the outcome and the process. Earlier this week, Gonzalez, Walden, and the third CPC co-chair Isaac Ruiz sent a letter to Warner (and apparently exchanged emails) in an attempt to understand exactly what the examination committee was doing this week. Today they both defended Best as fully qualified, arguing that she had done the job as acting Chief while O’Toole traveled extensively during her term, and that she has been doing a credible job since taking over in January as Interim Chief. Walden didn’t hold back, claiming that the city’s willingness to use a back-room process to eliminate a black woman from consideration shows that it is “racist,” and called for a complete do-over on the search process. Walden also asserted that the process followed this week does not comply with the requirements under the City Charter, arguing that the Search Committee itself needed to deliver three, instead of five, nominees (though the text of the City Charter would suggest otherwise).

CPC co-chair Harriett Walden
Search Committee member and CPC co-chair Enrique Gonzalez

Search committee member Kevin Stuckey, who is also an SPD officer and President of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG), was a bit more reserved. He said that he thought the five semi-finalists, including Best, were all capable and qualified, but didn’t agree with the co-chairs’ assessment that the city needed another outsider as Chief of Police. Stuckey said that he believed he could work with any of them. He also noted that contract negotiations between SPOG and the city have made rapid progress in the past several weeks and that he fully expected to have a contract to present for approval as soon as two weeks from now; he gave much of the credit for that breakthrough (police officers have been working without a contract for years) to Best, who he said has spent more time at the negotiating table than any previous Chief he has worked with and has showed a commitment to finding a solution.

Search Committee member and SPOG President Kevin Stuckey

When asked in the press conference about why Best did not make the final list, Burgess replied that it was less about her and more about what the department needs at this point. “The needs of the institution in some ways worked against her,” Burgess said.

Moving forward rom here, the Mayor will interview the three finalists, review the materials from the two committees, and choose a candidate to officially nominate. That nomination then goes to the City Council for confirmation. According to the City Charter, the records from the examination committee need to be available for public inspection for at least seven days before the City Council takes action on the nomination; so at some point in the future there will be some measure of transparency in what transpired this week.

While Mayor Durkan was not present at the press conference this afternoon, Burgess noted that she wants to make the appointment “by the end of June or early July.” What is yet unclear is whether there will be enough outrage at Best’s elimination to create political resistance to the three finalists within the minority communities they most need to build relationships and trust with.

You can watch this afternoon’s press conference here.