Cities face calls for public input in hiring of police chiefs

Amid community calls for more transparency, cities consider how involved the public should be


Columnists Jim Dudley and Joel Shults argue the pros and cons of involving the public in the police chief hiring process. Read their thoughts here

By David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Last year, three cities in San Diego County hired police chiefs. All three cities — Escondido, National City and El Cajon — promoted top brass from within their police departments with little public input and transparency.

That was the norm.

San Diego Police Department

It was what Oceanside City Manager Deanna Lorson noticed a few months ago when the time came to find a successor to replace the city's police chief, Frank McCoy, who will retire at the end of the year. With the hires across the county in 2019 in mind, Lorson started an internal recruitment.

"Of course, 2020 is different," she said recently.

The internal search for McCoy's successor drew pushback. Community members urged a wider and more transparent search — calls that forced the city to put the process on hold in September.

In the coming months, at a time when myriad aspects of law enforcement are under scrutiny, two cities in the county — Oceanside and La Mesa — will hire police chiefs. Community members say the cities must involve the public in the hiring and be open about the process.

In La Mesa, where residents have said they lost trust in the police force in the wake of a protest that turned riotous in late May, the city has hired a firm to conduct a nationwide search for its next police chief.

Meanwhile, with its internal search on hold, Oceanside recently surveyed community members to decide how to proceed with its own hiring.

Hiring a police chief falls to city managers in most cities in San Diego County that have their own police departments. The exception is San Diego, where a "strong mayor" form of government gives the mayor the power to select the police chief. The county sheriff is elected.

Escondido City Manager Jeff Epp said an external search was on the table at first when former police Chief Craig Carter announced his retirement last year, but in talks Epp had with Carter and others, the same name came up consistently: Ed Varso. He was Epp's pick just two months after Varso had been promoted to assistant police chief.

Racial justice advocate and Escondido resident Yusef Miller said the hiring process lacked public input and engendered a sense that Varso "showed up out of the blue." Miller said it wasn't until June of this year, during a protest outside the Escondido Police Department headquarters, that he met the new chief.

Epp said he believes the public should not be involved directly in the hiring of a police chief; he said he believes that could erode a city manager's power to hold a chief accountable. "If a chief functions as if she or he were selected primarily based on what the community wanted, then it erodes the accountability to the chain of command," he said.

He said he relies on the City Council to be the community's voice.

[READ: 'The pendulum goes back and forth': Chiefs address resignations and retirements]

In National City, City Manager Brad Raulston said he, too, relies on the City Council. He was deputy city manager in 2019 when then-Assistant Police Chief Jose Tellez was promoted to top cop.

Tellez acknowledged that the process when he was hired was not as transparent as the public expects now at a time of increased calls for police reform.

"I can see why the community wants that," he said. "Obviously, being the chief of police is a very critical piece to the community."

He said the hiring of a chief is a "city-by-city" situation, but added that he believes it starts with "the city, the council and the comfort level with the candidates they have (in-house)."

El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell said he collected input from community members informally before he hired police Chief Mike Moulton, who had been a captain, in 2019.

"In retrospect, especially in the current environment, I think I would have gone above and beyond what I did," he said.

In the hiring of Moulton and Tellez, succession planning played a role. Mitchell said one of the first conversations he had with Moulton's predecessor, former El Cajon police Chief Jeff Davis, was about potential future chiefs.

City managers and police chiefs said there are pros and cons to hiring a chief from inside a department versus outside. Chiefs Tellez and Moulton said they brought to the table years of knowledge of their departments and communities.

Tellez pointed to former National City police Chief Adolfo Gonzalez, now the county's chief probation officer, as a prime example of an outsider who excelled. Gonzalez was hired from the San Diego Police Department.

Other former National City chiefs who were hired from outside the agency struggled to lead, Tellez said, without naming anyone.

Gary Halbert, a retired city manager who in 2016 promoted then-Chula Vista police Capt. Roxanna Kennedy to police chief, said succession planning, which is typical across city departments, creates growth opportunities for employees and boosts morale. However, he said, "hiring a police chief is not akin to hiring another department head."

Police departments interact with the public regularly in ways other departments don't. That makes community involvement in the hiring of a police chief all the more important, Halbert said.

Halbert said an interview panel of community members was involved in Kennedy's hiring. Today, if he had to hire a police chief, he would call for a forum to take the community's input into account in the selection, he said.

Community members said public input and transparency are of utmost importance in the search for a police chief. Bishop Cornelius Bowser, a member of the local Coalition for Police Accountability and Transparency, said La Mesa and Oceanside should turn to hiring committees made up of community members and town halls to introduce the finalist or finalists to the public.

Bowser and other community members recalled — and criticized — the hiring of San Diego police Chief David Nisleit in 2018. The city hosted community forums to gather input and involved a panel of community members in a round of candidate interviews. But Bowser and others said they believe the process lacked transparency — they noted the city withheld the names of finalists — and that they felt the community's input didn't matter in the end.

Andrea St. Julian, a lawyer and police reform advocate, said the city should have introduced Nisleit to the community before he was officially hired.

Halbert, Chula Vista's former city manager, said cities should be transparent about how public input guides their selections.

"If you're going through a community process, there has to be value in that process," he said. "People's voices have to count — they have to mean something at the end of the day."

St. Julian said an expansive search is always the best approach to picking a police chief. She said perhaps the best candidate is an insider, but she added that a city wouldn't know that unless it looked outside of its police department.

Some community members and city officials said a search outside a police force is a good option if there's a need for change in the status quo or a fix to a problem. St. Julian said there's always room for growth.

"To say there's no problems is also saying there's no room for improvement," she said. "We all have room for improvement."

Humora, La Mesa's city manager, acknowledged the city's Police Department needs to rebuild trust. The firm the city hired, Los Angeles County-based Teri Black & Co., will lead a nationwide search.

"We don't want to limit the candidate pool for this very, very important position," he said.

He said the department's two captains would be "very qualified candidates" and that he believes a chief from either inside or outside the Police Department can rebuild trust within the community. The selection, he said, will "come down to fit."

He said the community, Police Department and City Council will be part of the process via "listening sessions."

"All input from stakeholders will shape the recruitment and selection process," he said.

In Oceanside, the city will review the results of the recent survey, which Lorson said was intended to gauge the level of community support of the city's Police Department. Lorson said the input will help the city decide whether to move forward with an internal recruitment or opt for a broader search.

Like Humora, Lorson said the Police Department's captains — there are three in Oceanside — would be "competitive candidates."

No matter the decision, the process will involve an interview panel of about 15 community members from various backgrounds, Lorson said. Their names will be released once a chief is selected — not sooner to ensure candidates don't lobby the panelists, she said.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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