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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Consider the who, not the what, of the next police chief

H.W. Braham

When City Hall announced that it was forming another panel seeking advice from its citizens on issues dealing with leadership within the Spokane Police Department, I was naturally jaded. After all, we’ve had more law enforcement kerfuffles since I arrived in 2003 than, oh, the number of potholes on Sprague between Freya and Division.

I had read the job description initially considered for the new chief of police position, but must confess there has never been six pages of redundancy so in need of a two-and-a-half page rebirth. I was skeptical until I attended the first meeting of the Police Leadership Advisory Committee, and its two subsequent full committee December meetings. I also spoke to several members of the public, including police officers, and attended a draft report review meeting to gain additional perspectives on the committee’s thinking.

Earlier I spent several lonely evenings attending the Ombudsman Commission meetings and spoke with several insiders about the steps and missteps of trying to fill that office.

So, here’s my opinion on what City Hall should assess using the appropriate sections of the committee’s report for selecting a leader for the SPD. I think the three step-wise process as initially discussed is sound as long as we embrace the following three questions: “What do we want?” “Who do we need?” and “What should we expect?

These are fundamental questions all employers should ask before moving forward with the arduous task of selecting the “best” candidate available.

The three objectives established for the selection process should be reordered to identify the attributes desired; next, to update the job description; and then a final hiring process centered on vetting past performance and personality. This makes clear to the community what we are looking for, and why.

Now, what are we looking for in a candidate? It has been pointed out in the PLAC meetings with the public that who the next candidate is, is as important – if not more so – than what the candidate has accomplished. That is to say, does this person have the right attitude, judgment and personality to be the kind of chief we need?

I interpret this to mean, is he/she open-minded and objective; demonstrates consistent high moral standards yet is practical in every-day dealings; serious yet personable; engaging and honest; decisive yet circumspect; thoughtful yet transparent? Does he or she command the room? If we want our chief to stand out from the crowd and be a national leader in policing, then we want someone who humbly commands an audience.

In my opinion, we need someone who has the respect of her/his peers; the support of her/his staff; the backing of the community; and the clarity of her/his convictions, especially when dealing with City Hall politics. Also, we want a proven leader that does not engender nor tolerate a hostile workplace environment, or discrimination in any form.

In the end, we want to know if our new chief will promote and receive trust from his/her peers, subordinates and community members. A reported outstanding track record of public service must be examined for how this person deals with both internal and external relations. Vetting current and former officers about the candidate’s acumen for leadership may be crucial here. Also, let’s not fool ourselves about the myriad of con-artists in and out of politics: The new chief needs to have the savvy to maneuver the inevitable hallway mine-fields. He or she also needs to demonstrate a penchant for open cooperation with other regional and adjacent community public safety groups.

Lastly, should the new chief have a good working knowledge of the Spokane community? And, should a college degree within or outside criminal justice be a deal-breaker?

I think the ideal answer is “yes” but, then again, not necessarily. A seasoned leader can quickly assess the needs of the department and the community, with or without a higher education. Some might argue that Spokane is a uniquely dysfunctional community; noting its recent history of hiring, firing and litigation. So having someone who fully understands the culture of the Spokane community and Eastern Washington, as well as be broadly educated, is a good thing.

A “best” candidate, however, can transcend these apparent shortcomings.

Howard W. Braham, Ph.D., is a member of the Spokane County Civil Service Commission. Formerly, he was a science policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Commerce, and was a cryptographer for the U.S. Department of Justice and a commissioned police officer.

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