More on the Chief of Police search

Three days after the finalists for Chief of Police were announced, the controversy doesn’t appear to be dying down. Some more documents have been made public, however, that shed a bit more light on what transpired last week.

As I reported last Friday, after the Search Committee delivered five candidates to the Mayor’s Office for consideration, a separate “examination committee” consisting of former King County Executive Ron Sims and four people from the Mayor’s Office administered a competitive examination of the five candidates and narrowed the list to three, as required by the City Charter. In doing so, they eliminated Interim Chief Carmen Best from consideration. Best was the only woman in the “final five,” and the only “insider” on the list. Her candidacy had strong support from many stakeholders in the community. Since the competitive examination process was not open to the public (or well understood by anyone not participating in it), Best’s elimination has provoked a strong negative reaction from her supporters — especially those already inclined not to trust City Hall (often for well-founded reasons).

While Best herself has said little other than to bow out with grace and class, the Community Police Commission co-chairs have sent a letter to the Mayor asking for additional records and other information related to the competitive examination process. In the meantime, over the weekend the Mayor’s Office released to reporters a set of application materials from the five “semi-finalists.” Equally important, it released a letter from the Search Committee’s four co-chairs to the Mayor expressing their thoughts on the candidates and on the Police Department as a whole. That letter expands substantially on the sentiment co-chair Tim Burgess expressed at the press conference last Friday: that the four of them believe the city needs another “outsider” Chief of Police to continue the reform process.

Strangely, the letter doesn’t explicitly make that point, or request that the Mayor prioritize an outsider. In fact, in a way it says just the opposite: “Each of these candidates has the professional training, experience, and ability to serve as Seattle’s next chief of police.”  That includes Best. But most of the four-page letter is a compilation of fourteen observations on the current state of SPD. It praises several reformed practices: training, reductions in use of force, improved use of data in crime analysis and performance reporting, commitment by many employees to constitutional, fair and effective policing, and hiring more civilians to specialized positions. But it also delivers several sharp criticisms of the department, and saves its most pointed attacks for supervisors and the departmental leadership:

  • It claims that the department faces “significant resource deployment challenges,” including that less than half of all sworn officers are assigned to patrol, leading to understaffing and long response times.
  • It criticizes SPD’s model of “community policing” that assigns specific officers to this work, arguing that this signals to all the rest of the police officers that community policing is not their responsibility.
  • It claims that SPD “lacks supervisor accountability standards and capabilities,” and more generally charges that supervisors are not held accountable today. The letter says that Best acknowledged this point during her interview.
  • It notes that SPD “lacks formal succession planning for senior command positions, lacks a leadership development program for field supervisors… and does not have formal rotation policy for officers and detectives”
  • It claims that SPD officers “produce an inconsistent work product in terms of thoroughness and accuracy,” and says that this “reflects a supervisory and management failure.”
  • It says that SPD’s discipline practice “sometimes blocks imposition of appropriate discipline,” when the Chief’s disciplinary decisions are overturned by arbitrators “because it is deemed inconsistent with what was imposed in previous cases.” “There needs to be a reset,” it argues.
  • It notes that SPD still doesn’t have a system for management and monitoring of overtime and off-duty employment, despite the problems persisting for years.
  • It claims that many SPD officers feel unsupported by their leadership and the city’s political leadership.

The letter closes by observing that what the Department of Justice’s 2012 investigation of SPD found is, in the co-chairs’ eyes, still true today: “a police department with a lack of effective leadership and a culture that tolerated that deficiency.” And again, while the letter doesn’t explicitly recommend hiring an outsider, it nevertheless implicates Best — the only insider in the top five — by indirect reference in the litany of alleged departmental leadership failures it lays out because of her tenure in the department as well as her senior leadership positions.

I’ve posted the written candidate materials used by the each and examination committees. McLay, Reyes and Villegas speak directly to reforms needed among departmental leadership and supervisors (Villegas briefly, McLay and Reyes extensively) while Best and Frizell do not. Of course, the search process involved in-person interviews as well, and at this point we don’t have information on what topics or viewpoints were shared in those sessions.

In the memo from the examination committee recommending the three finalists, the committee lists its assessment criteria as:

  • Record of setting high standards and holding officers accountable
  • Knowledge and perspective of history of policing in the US, including racism, bias, and negative impacts of disproportionality
  • Ability to build trust and confidence with people across widely diverse communities in a large city
  • Ability to lead the continuing reform process

The memo doesn’t elaborate on individual rankings of the candidates, but if the search committee co-chairs are taken at their word and their observations are accurate (two big “if’s) then it’s reasonable to assume that Best was ranked lower than other candidates because her role in the current departmental leadership led to questions about how well she met the first criterion: setting high standards and holding officers accountable.

Independent of whether the co-chairs’ assessment is on-point or whether their motives lie elsewhere, there are legitimate issues to be raised with a selection process advertised as “open” whose last step involved four search committee co-chairs putting their thumb heavily on the scale, and five separate individuals using a non-public process to eliminate two candidates. It’s clear that wasn’t what at least some of the search committee members, the CPC members, and community stakeholders expected to happen before the Mayor made her final choice — though it’s hard to believe they would be this upset with the process if they didn’t support Best’s candidacy so strongly.

How Mayor Durkan handles this situation will be the second big test of her administration, following closely on the heels of the head tax debate where she was forced to expend a fair amount of political capital — especially with underserved and minority communities. And to the extent that Best’s elimination represents one more slight against those same constituencies, Durkan may be forced to revise the process in order to avoid compromising the credibility of her nominee before he is even confirmed — or creating a confirmation battle with the City Council. That said, Durkan also has a City Charter problem, since it clearly states that she must choose from three candidates after a competitive examination. She could back up a step and re-do the examination process, potentially involving the search committee, but she would need to wrestle with whether the politics of selecting (or eliminating) Best in a new examination would overwhelm the process and/or create a bias against the other candidates. She would also need to decide whether the search committee co-chairs’ heavy-handed memo has poisoned their ability to lead their own committee, if she decides to get the committee involved in the examination.

We’ll see in the coming days how the Mayor decides to move forward — or perhaps backward.