With Mayor-elect Ed Murray facing key decisions regarding the Seattle Police Department, a City Council committee took up a proposal Wednesday that could help Murray attract strong candidates for permanent police chief.
The measure would repeal a longstanding restriction that bars the chief from hiring assistant or deputy chiefs from outside the department, a possible impediment to potential chief candidates who would want the freedom to bring along top aides.
It was discussed by the council’s public-safety committee, with Councilmember Tim Burgess pressing for swift action but committee Chair Bruce Harrell putting off a vote until mid-January to collect more information, including comments from the two police unions representing rank and file and management.
Harrell, co-sponsor of the measure with Burgess, said a decision could be made in time to dovetail with the search for a permanent chief.
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The council, he said, needs to weigh the benefits of providing a useful tool to the chief while considering the effect of change that could hamper morale by restricting the ability to rise within the department.
Murray won’t take office until January, but he could begin making some decisions before then, driven by the urgency to meet a federal mandate to curb excessive force and biased policing in the Police Department. Just last week, two assistant chiefs were demoted to captain after a critical draft report from the federal monitor overseeing the reforms, who cited resistance among some in the top ranks.
The potential choices facing Murray include whether to:
• Begin the search process for a permanent chief before he takes office.
• Select a new interim chief who would pledge not to apply for the permanent job, which current Interim Chief Jim Pugel is actively seeking.
• Limit the search only to an outside candidate if Murray concludes that would provide the best leadership.
Burgess called the measure to open up hiring of top commanders essential to lifting a “roadblock” that has limited the pool of applicants in past searches for police chiefs.
“Our restriction is very uncommon,” Burgess said.
But Harrell asked for more information from council staff, which reported Wednesday that preliminary research indicated that in other cities the common practice is to allow outside hiring of top commanders, including in Philadelphia and Chicago.
Letters asking to bargain the issue have been sent by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents officers and sergeants, and the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents captains and lieutenants who presently are the only group from which assistant chiefs can be drawn.
Capt. Eric Sano, president of the management association, who attended Wednesday’s committee meeting, said his group didn’t plan to be “obstructionists.” But it wants an opportunity to discuss issues such as how many top positions might be open to outsiders, Sano said.
The association’s vice president, Capt. Joe Kessler, who sat on the most recent police-chief search committee that led to the hiring of insider John Diaz, said he questioned whether the current restriction has been an impediment.
The restriction dates to the late 1970s, although it’s unclear why it was enacted, Burgess said.
In pushing for a repeal, Burgess said the city needs its top police commanders to be the “best possible, regardless of where they come from.”
Without passing the measure, he said, the city won’t be setting the table for reform, as well as change sought by officers and detectives whose “frustration level is widespread.”
Burgess said if the committee votes in mid-January, the full council won’t follow suit until later in the month.
Harrell said he was confident the committee could act in a timely fashion while carefully considering a change that would engender “culture shock” in the department.
The change would bring the Police Department closer in line with the King County Sheriff’s Office, where top commanders may be hired from outside.
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