Monday, September 03, 2007

Police Under Pressure

As the only Charter Amendment sent to the voters without unanimous vote of City Council, one has to assume the measure providing for appointing the police chief rather than electing him is the most controversial item facing voters this November. It has been pointed out, by among others my (I hope still) friend Councilman Morrison that the issue has been voted on numerous times, most recently only just over two years ago. It was for just that reason the Charter Review Committee decided early on we would not bring this issue up of our own accord.

Then, late in our deliberations, representatives of both major officers associations came to us requesting the issue be put out again. By the end of our meetings, we had been presented with a petition signed by a majority of serving officers, top to bottom ranks, insisting that the quadrennial election resulted in inevitable factions, with officers feeling pressured to sign on to one or another electoral candidate. While the petition was not unanimous, I have yet to hear from a single officer, current candidates included, who prefers the current elected system for the long run.

Speaking personally here, when this was put on ballot last time, though I support the concept, I opposed that measure, said so before City Council. Honestly, it had been used as a parliamentary blocking manuever to prevent, by state law, any other Charter Amendment for two years, and its sponsors never gave it any support, having acheived their goal by putting it on the ballot. A few minor details had been left unattended to, for instance; who makes the appointment by what process. That has been addressed in the current Amendment package, City Manager will make the appontment, with advice and consent of Council.

My top priority in urging the change rests on an all too possible hypothetical, and I hasten to add, this is hypothetical, no reflection on Chief Vasquez or any current candidate for the job. Suppose in some future election we find we have elected an amiable campaigner, very good at the grip&grin and baby-kissing of an election, but lost at sea as an administrator. Worst case, we elect someone who turns out to be ethically challenged and embroils the whole Department in scandal and suspicion. Under our elected system, we are stuck so long as that person avoids a felony conviction.

Taking this scenario a step further, should we be faced with a scandal-plagued department, we may find ourselves wanting to bring in a leader from outside, someone with no prior connections to any suspect faction in the situation, a new broom as it were, to clean house. That would be unimaginably difficult, realistically impossible under an elected system.

I would hope that an appointed system would continue to promote from within whenever possible, there is normally an inherent advantage, especially in police work, to having a Chief who knows the city and the department well. Had it been possible, I would have insisted on language to that effect in the Charter Amendment, but the Charter is not the appropriate place for non-binding, advisory wordage.

We all hope the scenario I hypothesize never comes to pass, but even a casual reading of the news tells us it is something that does happen in the real world. Should it come to pass, the intentionally cumbersome process of Charter Amendment would preclude a timely response to a critical situation.

I contend the voters will still have a strong, if less direct effect on selection. Council members only serve two year terms, and selecting the Police Chief is likely to be right at the top of the list of important votes cast by a given member when that Councilperson comes up for re-election. I doubt a Council is likely to commit political suicide by approving a Manager's appointment of a Chief completely out of synch with the voters' wishes. Should such a selection actually come to pass, with staggered terms, the voters will never have to wait more than a year for the chance to throw half the rascals out and send a strong corrective message.

Police work is a demanding, stressful job and the people who perform this critical function deserve our support. Through our committee and subsequently through Council, our officers have come to the voters asking that this change be made to improve the environment in which they work. Picture if your workplace elected or even took part in electing the boss. Can you see the potential for divisiveness?

If one discounts the validity of the most recent plebicite, and I for one do, it has been a long time since this issue was last given a thorough airing, with both sides making their best case. Much has changed in that time, but I contend the most important change relevant to this issue is the clear request from the personnel on the "thin blue line" for some relief. We owe them at least our open-minded consideration of this Charter Amendment.


  1. Not terribly long ago a sitting police chief in this area was fairly widely recognized as being incompetent. He was dumped. The fact he was appointed, and subsequently subject to removal in the event of lackluster performace, allowed his dumping and his replacement far more quickly than would have been possible had he been elected.

    I might add, too, that elected officials are responsible for such appointments, and as such they remain accountable to their constituencies. It ain't like the voting public has no input to such decisions.

    This is food for thought for those who prefer the "directly elected" option.