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City, Community Groups Spar Over Best Way To Find New Police Chief

People hold up signs reading

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: People hold up signs reading "Our Voice Our Chief" at a press conference calling for transparency and inclusion in the selection of a new San Diego Police Chief, Aug. 23, 2017.

The hunt for a new San Diego Police Department chief is nearly upon us, but there is disagreement over the best process to find a new leader. The city of San Diego has proposed one method, while a coalition of community groups suggests another.

Community Forums

–Sept. 23, Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 404 Euclid Ave., 1 p.m.

–Sept. 26, Mira Mesa Senior Center, 8460 Mira Mesa Blvd., 6 p.m.

–Sept. 28, San Diego LGBT Center, 3909 Centre St., 6 p.m.

–Oct. 4, City Heights Recreation Center, 4380 Landis St., 6 p.m.

–Oct. 5, Standley Recreation Center, 3585 Governor Dr., 6 p.m.

–Oct. 10, Col. Irving Salomon San Ysidro Community Activity Center, 179 Diza Rd., 6 p.m.

On one side of the debate: The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties plus at least eight community and legal groups. They want a series of open forums and a panel that includes community members to interview candidates. The ACLU’s Christie Hill said their plan prioritizes transparency and public involvement.

“Having the community's voice represented beyond just community forums which is important, but to have them actually have a voice in selecting and identifying the next police chief is ... also important,” said Hill, the ACLU's senior policy strategist.

The city of San Diego wants a slightly different approach. Its process also calls for public forums (and the city recently revised its schedule to include more) and includes an unidentified panel of interviewers who will recommend a final candidate. City Spokeswoman Katie Keach previously told KPBS Midday Edition this was to protect the integrity of the process.

Chief Searches Reviewed By Coalition

–Dallas (2017, 2010)

–San Francisco (2016)

–Oakland, Calif. (2016)

–Phoenix (2016)

–Chicago (2016)

–Memphis, Tenn. (2016)

–Tucson, Ariz. (2015)

–Forth Worth, Texas (2015)

–Seattle (2014)

–Los Angeles (2002, 2009)

–San Antonio

Source: ACLU

“Having a somewhat confidential interview process allows the focus to be on the evaluation of candidates and not on the potential compromisation [sic] of interviewers," said Keach, who noted the mayor and city council will have the final say on the city's next chief. "What we have understood from our research with other cities who have gone through this is that there may be attempts of lobbying potential people who may be on the committee.”

It is this step in the process that is a point of contention between the two sides.

Hill said the coalition’s proposal pulled information from chief searches in 11 other cities across the country, from Seattle to Chicago. That included Dallas, which allowed community members to interview finalists and organized a public meet-and-greet, and Phoenix, where a group of identified community members helped interview semifinalists and then the public interacted with finalists in an open setting. Hill said the research also included examples of interviewers that weren’t identified.

"One of the bigger takeaways from that process was there was no one-size-fits-all approach," Hill said.

She said the nine organizations pulled elements from each city's search to find a process that they thought fit San Diego and worked with youth from the City Heights-based nonprofit Mid City Community Advocacy Network to draft a proposal.

Chief Searches Reviewed By City Of San Diego

–Santa Cruz, Calif. (2017)

–Sacramento, Calif. (2017)

–West Covina, Calif. (2017)

–San Pablo, Calif. (2017)

–Capitola, Calif. (2016)

–Oakland, Calif. (2016)

–La Mesa, Calif. (2015)

–Dallas

–San Antonio

Source: City of San Diego

The city of San Diego said it researched nine cities, including seven in California. Spokeswoman Keach declined an on-camera interview but said in an email that San Diego’s search focused on a "diverse selection of past police chief recruitments including cities of a similar size."

That included Sacramento, which recently hired the department’s first African-American police chief, and West Covina, near Los Angeles, where residents wanted a chief that's familiar with the department, and got one.

Two municipalities the city reviewed — Dallas and San Antonio — had populations similar to San Diego's 1.4 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Others on the city's list, such as Oakland and Sacramento have populations less than 500,000, while the California cities of La Mesa, Capitola, West Covina, San Pablo and Santa Cruz are significantly smaller, the bureau estimated.

Nelson Lim with the public policy research nonprofit Rand Corporation said duplicating processes in other cities may not yield the best result for San Diego, because a universal best practice may not actually exist.

“One of the reason(s) is that ‘what is best’ depends on the context," said Lim, who is also on the faculty at University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government. "There could be a study that can tell you what is the common practices for hiring a police chief but the best practice is very localized, very contextualized."

Lim has worked with government agencies on hiring practices, including the San Diego Police Department. He said he is not entirely convinced by the city of San Diego’s proposal for a confidential panel.

“You want to pick an individual that (is) morally strong with high integrity, and those individuals, I have a hard time imagining, that easily would be persuaded by lobbying," he said.

He said the city could set clear rules that evidence of candidate lobbying would result in disqualification. On the other hand, he is also not fully on board with the coalition’s proposed 15-member panel, which would be comprised of appointees by each council member, two youths and the leaders of four commissions.

“The group is too big to gain consensus. When you're hiring a police chief, a lot of candidates, especially top candidates will have other opportunities and if you are very time consuming and a very involved process then some of the top candidates may withdraw or not consider putting in applications," he said.

But he suggested the 15-person group could still play a role and help aggregate input from community forums to recommend candidate criteria and nominate interviewers. The city's elected officials could then review the nominations and appoint a smaller, public selection committee, he said.

The city of San Diego is currently seeking requests for proposal from a recruitment firm to assist in its search.

The city of San Diego has proposed one method, while a coalition of community groups suggests another.

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