Cop-out

Why is it so hard for big cities—in Texas and elsewhere—to hire a police chief?

AUSTIN POLICE OFFICER DAVID JUSTICE sits in rush-hour traffic, straining to get a view of the bottleneck ahead. On this drizzly August evening, rain drums on the hood of his patrol car while dispatchers spew forth an increasing stream of 911 demands from his squawking police radio, but traffic isn’t budging. “Sometimes they’ll send me on a disturbance call, a potentially volatile situation, and I go knowing I don’t have backup,” Justice says, slowly inching toward the freeway exit. “I’ve been on calls where my radio’s gone dead. That’s an awful, sinking feeling. You’re trying to make communication, and then you realize you’re out there on your own.”

Justice isn’t the only Austin police officer who’s feeling cut adrift these days. His complaints are buttressed by an audit of the Austin Police Department (APD) completed by the city auditor’s office this past January: It revealed, among other pressing problems, financial mismanagement, poor communication within the ranks, a lack of accountability by police brass, and unreliable, shoddy, antiquated equipment, including bulletproof vests held together with duct tape. Despite some of the APD’s significant achievements, such as a high rate of clearance in homicide investigations and a 5.6 percent decrease in violent crime in 1996, the audit created an uproar, much of it directed at police chief Elizabeth Watson. During her four-year tenure, Watson had been a controversial and unpopular figure inside the department, and when she resigned following the audit’s release, there was “widespread relief and joy,” one APD officer told me privately. “We felt that, finally, things were going to change.” Some officers saw Watson as a scapegoat for larger problems, but many others—the same ones who had voted against her in an overwhelming 1995 no-confidence vote—believed her departure heralded a welcome changing of the guard.

More than six months later, however, no new Austin police chief had been hired, and Austin city manager Jesus Garza—who led the search—was under fire for missing deadlines, mishandling candidates, and allowing the process to be held hostage by political infighting. Meanwhile, the APD was in need of leadership more than ever. Following a record number of retirements, the department was almost one hundred officers short of its authorized strength, and since the start of the year, four whistle-blower lawsuits had been filed against the department by officers who said they had been disciplined for reporting possibly illegal activity by other officers. Adding insult to injury, a crime spree that made national headlines this June—the murders of community activist Juan Cotera and college student Brandon Shaw—originated with a carjacking that occurred only three blocks from APD headquarters. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d say morale right now is at a two,” a detective in the sex crimes division told me during the summer.

In late August—finally—Garza named a new chief: Stanley Knee, who had run the Garden Grove, California, police department. By then, however, community groups and political leaders were complaining loudly about the messiness of the selection process, though in truth Garza’s fumbling around was pretty much par for the course. Austin’s difficulty in hiring a police chief seems to have less to do with its own situation and more to do with the changing expectations being placed upon big-city chiefs and, in turn, the officials who hire them. “The job of police chief has taken on a new dimension,” says Jerry Oldani, the president of the Oldani Group, a Seattle head-hunting firm frequently used by city managers and mayors who are in the market for chiefs. “Now that law enforcement agencies are making the transition from authoritarian, paramilitary forces to inclusive, community-oriented police groups, the chief must appeal to a multitude of interests and constituencies. In the current political climate the search for a new chief is perhaps the most controversial job search in the public sector. Everyone feels that he has a vested interest in the outcome.” Police chiefs are no longer merely expected to be hard-nosed cops, Oldani says; they must also be politically savvy, financially shrewd, charismatic leaders with a mastery of public relations and an ability to simultaneously reduce crime, instill confidence in minority groups, keep officers’ loyalties, and navigate dangerous political waters.

Finding candidates for such a job—preferably ones who reflect the diverse ethnic makeup of a large city and who can pass a battery of challenging tests and interviews—can be difficult. Until recently, city managers and mayors were not faced with this challenge; chiefs were often native sons who had worked their way up through the ranks after years on the streets. But in the past decade the changing nature of policing has led officials in many cities (including San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and El Paso) to conduct nationwide searches. Current hiring methods favor outsiders, in the hope that a chief who shaped up, say, a large West Coast city can work quick miracles for a medium-sized Southern city—even though that practice largely ignores the particulars of each police department and each community.

And regardless of whether the search is conducted internally or externally, the process is often painstakingly long, which compounds the problem. “When there’s a vacuum in leadership, it’s very damaging,” says Mike Sheffield, the vice president of the Austin Police Association, a sort of union for police officers. “People’s discontent becomes magnified, morale is lowered, and important long-term strategizing is put on hold.” As the demands on chiefs have increased, lapses in leadership have become more common; the average tenure of a chief today is only two and a half years, according to the Washington, D.C.—based Police Executive Research Forum. Dallas and Houston each have had three chiefs since the early nineties, and so have Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and a host of other cities around the country.

What’s behind the high turnover? In many communities police chiefs are fall guys for everything from failed public-safety initiatives to political gaffes. If they were promoted from within, the chiefs are often faulted for being too entangled in insular fraternities that resist

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