Seeking a tool to attract top police-chief candidates, the Seattle City Council’s public-safety committee approved a measure Wednesday that would allow whoever is chosen to hire law-enforcement officers outside the department as assistant and deputy chiefs.
The new ordinance is expected to be approved by the full nine-member council on Tuesday, coinciding with the nationwide search for a permanent police chief launched last week by Mayor Ed Murray.
It would repeal a 1978 restriction that limited Seattle’s police chiefs to selecting senior commanders from the current pool of captains and lieutenants.
In addition to the chief search, the move comes at a time when the city is adopting broad reforms to comply with a 2012 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
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“Truly effective and sustainable reform necessitates strong leadership; removing barriers to attracting the best possible candidates will help us achieve this leadership,” Councilmembers Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess wrote in a memo supporting their joint proposal.
Harrell, the committee chairman, Burgess and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw unanimously voted in favor of the measure.
During a brief discussion preceding the vote, Harrell noted that the Police Department’s two unions, including the one representing lieutenants and captains, had expressed concerns that the change would create a “glass ceiling,” removing the incentive internally to seek promotion.
The unions also sought to limit the number of outsiders that could be hired to one or two, Harrell said.
“I hear them,” Harrell said, adding that he disagreed, from a policy standpoint.
No restrictions on the number of outside hires were included in the ordinance.
Currently, the Police Department has eight assistant chiefs, a number that could change.
The ordinance is likely to go into effect in late February. Murray hopes to choose a permanent chief by April.
While it is aimed at the hiring of a permanent chief, the measure also would apply to Interim Chief Harry C. Bailey, who was appointed by Murray last week, and any future chiefs. Bailey, a former assistant Seattle police chief who came out of retirement, has pledged to not pursue the permanent job.
In their memo, Harrell and Burgess said the change was particularly important if the new chief is from outside the department.
“An experienced Chief from another city who has a proven record of reform and effective leadership may well want to bring one or more experienced assistants along,” they wrote.
Conversely, the restriction might deter top candidates from applying, they wrote.
Lifting it will send a “practical and symbolic signal” to the department and Seattle residents that the city is serious about reform and attracting the best possible candidates, the memo said.
A change also will promote competition and motivate the rank and file who want to further their careers, while learning from the “strongest police commanders available,” it added.
“As a practical matter, it is extremely unlikely that any Chief, new or otherwise, would not fill most command staff positions by promotion from within,” Harrell and Burgess wrote.
The change would bring Seattle in line with most of the seven West Coast cities, including Portland, San Francisco and San Diego, that Seattle compares itself to in labor-contract negotiations. Only San Jose doesn’t allow the appointment of outside hires in the top police ranks.
Additionally, of 19 cities surveyed nationwide, 12 allow such appointments from outside.
Under the ordinance, senior commanders who have risen through the ranks, but are later removed, may resume their previous rank; those hired from outside wouldn’t have the right to another position in the department if removed.
It isn’t known why Seattle’s restriction was enacted, except that it occurred as part of creating the Public Safety Civil Service Commission.
But Burgess noted the 1978 action occurred the same year that Patrick Fitzsimons of the New York City Police Department was chosen as Seattle’s police chief.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich