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

October 1997By Comments

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 change; if they were brought in from outside, the problem is said to be their inability to win over old-timers. Former Los Angeles police chief Willie Williams—the first chief from outside the LAPD in forty years—was pushed out of office this spring despite lower crime rates because he had not restructured the department’s top brass quickly enough. Even wildly successful chiefs like former New York City police commissioner William Bratton have no guarantees. Bratton, whose innovative policing methods resulted in the steepest two-year decline in crime in the city’s history, was a victim of his own stellar record; when his popularity began to eclipse Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s in 1996, he was forced to step down.

In these and other cities—including several big cities in Texas—such potential land mines have greatly crippled the process of finding a new chief. Dallas, for instance, went without a chief for nearly six months in 1993, and the unwieldiness of the search was the last of a series of clashes over police issues that ended with city manager Jan Hart resigning from her post. El Paso went for almost a year without a chief in 1993 and 1994 because candidates were recruited from far and wide. But of all the Keystone Kops—style searches conducted in recent years, Austin’s may be the clearest indicator of how complicated things have become.

At first, though, it didn’t seem complicated at all. On January 29 Elizabeth Watson announced she was taking a job with the U.S. Justice Department, and city man-ager Jesus Garza began his search for a replacement. Garza announced that he would nominate a candidate by the end of February, and former Travis County sheriff Doyne Bailey, now the director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, was widely seen as a shoo-in. But when then-mayor Bruce Todd and other influential pols began exerting behind-the-scenes pressure on Bailey’s behalf, Garza bristled. And when Todd wrote an op-ed piece in the Austin American-Statesman pointedly suggesting that Garza should look “close to home” for a candidate, Garza asserted his independence. First he extended the application deadline until late March; then, in May, when he named eight primary candidates, he announced that he would not pick the three front-runners until July—implicitly cutting Todd out of the selection process, because his term as mayor ended June 15. “I’m never surprised at anything becoming a mess in Austin politics, and this became a big mess,” says city council member Daryl Slusher. “The mayor’s lobbying got the process off to a bad start, and it hasn’t recovered.”

Garza really began to feel the heat in mid-July when—instead of naming three front-runners—he announced that he was reopening the search. Upon learning of Garza’s decision through the media, at least two would-be chiefs withdrew their applications in a huff. “It was handled in a deplorable fashion,” says one former candidate, Jerry Williams, the executive director of the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute at Sam Houston State University. “Instead of a professional, well-oiled process, there was just indecision.” Garza denies it, but most likely his hemming and hawing was a result of his inability to settle on a racially diverse trio of candidates. Four of the eight potential front-runners were black, yet according to one council member, the three who scored highest in psychological tests and interviews were all white. When Garza reopened the search, he tried to recruit Richard Williams, the chief in Madison, Wisconsin, who is black, and Salt Lake City chief Ruben Ortega, who is Hispanic, but both declined.

Then, in an abrupt turnaround at the end of July, Garza announced that he had concluded his search and settled on three front-runners, all of them white: Chief Knee of Garden Grove; Austin’s interim chief, Bruce Mills; and Chief Donald Carey of Independence, Missouri. Mills, who was well liked at the APD, was expected to get the job, since Knee and Carey had each overseen fewer than one fifth the number of officers in Austin’s force. But Garza was unwilling to name him outright; first, he said, he wanted input from a 25-person committee of community leaders, and he wanted to put on a town meeting featuring the three candidates at the Austin Convention Center—kind of a Miss Congeniality contest—so interested citizens could meet them and greet them and choose their favorite. But on August 22, just before the reception was to be held, the American-Statesman reported that Mills had chosen a once-suspended officer to head up the APD’s internal affairs division. The officer had also been cited in a whistle-blower lawsuit, which was particularly troublesome since federal investigators have been looking into obstruction-of-justice charges against the department. Then there was the race issue. According to APD insiders, the Austin branch of the NAACP was rumored to have a “bombshell” regarding Mills that would destroy his candidacy, though nothing ever materialized. (NAACP officials did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

In early August a coalition of black and Hispanic East Austinites, as well as city council member Willie Lewis, who is black, separately called for Garza to reopen the search yet again, ostensibly because they were not pleased with the three white finalists. Garza, however, held his ground and refused to start the search anew—a rare show of decisiveness in a process characterized by anything but. “There’s no doubt that this has been painful,” he told me wearily before he made his decision. “Most selections of administrators are internal. I sit down and talk with individuals, I figure out who the best person is, I make the appointment, and it’s done. I hired Milton Lee to be general manager of the electric utility, which is the city’s largest department, the one with the most resources. Here’s a man who controls a $500 million—plus budget, and nobody paid much attention to that. On the police chief search, I’ve heard everything. But this is going to be done right, and it’s not going to be rushed. If that means that our time line has changed again, so be it. We’re finished when we’re finished.”

As it happened, Garza was finished on August 26, choosing Knee over the others—but true to form, the grumbling continued. “I am concerned about the candidate’s lack of experience managing a force with a large number of officers of color,” said Councilman Lewis. And Mike Lummus, the president of the Austin Police Association, could barely muster any enthusiasm. “While Mr. Knee would not have been our first choice,” he said, “we recognize that the decision was the city manager’s, not ours.” When it comes to hiring a chief, it seems, cities like Austin simply can’t cop a break.

Pamela Colloff has written for Details and OnPatrol magazines.

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