The final four in the search for a Spokane police chief have been announced. One of the five interviews will be open to the public, and the finalists come from a broad range of candidates inside and outside of law enforcement. Mayor David Condon deserves credit for providing the public with information and access as City Hall works its way through the process.
In our view, applicants will need the following qualities to be successful:
Commitment to the community. When Anne Kirkpatrick interviewed for the job, she noted up-front that she might be looking elsewhere after five years. In retrospect, that should have been a red flag. For even the best managers, it takes a long time to turn around large institutions. The city has learned the hard way that shortcuts lead to lawsuits. If applicants are viewing this job as a stepping-stone or a glide path into retirement, they will be a bad fit. This is going to be a difficult job.
Don’t be defensive. The police ombudsman needs the power to conduct independent investigations. The public has made it clear that this is a demand that must be met before public trust can be restored. The Use of Force Commission will be suggesting needed changes in police practices. An autocratic “my way or the highway” approach will fall flat.
Pursue political support. The chief cannot go it alone in changing the culture of the Police Department. The unwillingness of mayors and council members to take strong public stands in Kirkpatrick’s defense was part of the problem. Before the Otto Zehm incident, police oversight was an afterthought, and nobody made it their issue to rectify that. The good news for applicants is that Condon and the council have rallied to the cause of reform. The next chief needs to build on that momentum.
Pursue union support. Head-butting the Police Guild won’t work. Many have tried, and have the lumps to prove it. We believe that most officers do a good job and want to get better. The challenge is to persuade them that reform is in their best interests. Buy-in from the force will be essential to expanding oversight and applying best practices.
Be a communicator. Get out in the community and connect with citizens at every opportunity. A key part of tearing down the Blue Wall between the police force and the community is to become a public fixture. If the next chief needs training in this area, then he should request a ride-along with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. He is seemingly at every public event, which has helped boost support for him and his department.
Admit mistakes. The Zehm case – and others – escalated because of an unwillingness to admit fault and show contrition. Studies on medical malpractice show that what many patients really want is a timely, sincere apology. When they don’t get it, they look for a lawyer. The power of “we’re sorry” would help the Police Department, too. Fortunately, the culture at the city attorney’s office is also undergoing a change, so the opportunities for contrition should increase.
The interviews begin Wednesday. The mayor hopes to pick a chief in August. The task ahead for the next chief will be huge, but so is the opportunity to make a real difference.