How Not to Pick a Police Chief
As the search reaches full speed, so do complaints about the process
In the backstage jockeying over the city's search for a new Austin Police Department chief, three common themes have emerged, about which nearly everyone deeply involved in the process agrees. They know whom they don't want. They know whom they do want or, more precisely, there's consensus about who, among the five finalists, are the strongest contenders. And above all, they agree that publicly revealing either preference would be, at least, risky and, at worst, counterproductive.
In Austin, the strategy of self-imposed silence on anything involving the Police Department about which so many, so often, are so full of loudly argued opinions is entirely unexpected. In private conversation, there is little reticence: When interviewed "on background" with firm assurance that nothing (nothing!) will be directly attributed in print frank opinions flow. But for public distribution, the best a reporter gets is the generic (and thus universally attributable) desire that we find the "best possible candidate" to address the city's "ongoing issues" and "rebuild trust" between police and community.
Worthy goals, yes but hardly the kind of frank APD assessments Austinites have been long accustomed to hearing.
And in the wake of each cautious opinion inevitably follows the same reason: just one, offered with increasing intensity over the last month, by everyone I've talked to a pool that includes cops, community leaders, activists, and City Hall insiders.
The reason is offered in four words: City Manager Toby Futrell.
Behind the Curtain
In the ongoing melodrama that is the city's yearlong search for Austin's next chief now as long and confusing as a season of Lost Futrell has been cast (some would say typecast) as the villain, or at least the mystery queen: a shadowy, Oz-like presence poised behind the curtain of City Hall, empowered by the City Charter to decide who will be the city's next top cop. The City Council will eventually vote to confirm or to reject Futrell's final choice for chief, but that's it. The members have no authority to forward any specific candidate. Theoretically, they have the power to lobby Futrell, suggesting that a certain candidate be chosen perhaps leveraging their voting power against the embarrassing possibility that Futrell and her candidate could face public rejection.
But that's unlikely, because it assumes the council members actually know enough about the five candidates to form independent conclusions about a favorite. To date, the council hasn't been involved in the selection process, nor have the members met the finalists. (They'll get their first face-to-face with the Fab Five APD acting Chief Cathy Ellison; California Highway Patrol Division Chief Art Acevedo; El Paso Chief Richard Wiles; former Chattanooga, Tenn., Chief Jimmie Dotson; and former Milwaukee Assistant Chief Roger Reinke during a three-hour dinner this Sunday, June 10.) This is Futrell's show. It is her job to design the process, to find, vet, and ultimately, select a chief. And that's enough to hush the room but not enough to silence it.
Futrell is smart, energetic, and shrewd. She's worked for the city for nearly 30 years, beginning as a clerk and climbing steadily all the way to the top of the food chain, an impressive feat of ability, drive, and endurance. But those same qualities also figure in a common but less flattering portrait of Futrell as a micromanaging control freak, an administrator who doesn't like to be second-guessed or upstaged. There's no forgetting that Futrell is in charge, and to many observers within and without the city bureaucracy, that's kind of scary. For her part, Futrell insists that imposing image is simply not true and she's taken aback by the suggestion that anyone would actually be afraid of her. "I hear things all the time that I supposedly said or did or am. None bothers me as much as the comment about people being afraid of me," she said. "That is so contrary to how I work."
But the fear described by city officials and observers is less personal than bureaucratic fear of the consequences (in Futrell's eyes) of any misstep, especially on a high-profile matter under her personal purview. One City Hall insider joked that the best way to get the least-favored chief candidate bumped from the list would be to start openly praising him or her. (Another source just as quickly rejected that tactic, concluding that Futrell would instantly be wise to any attempt at reverse psychology.)
Consider the outcome of the last chief-selection process: Although Futrell was not yet city manager in 1997, when former Chief Stan Knee was hired, as the heir apparent to incumbent City Manager Jesus Garza, she was intimately involved in the process. There were two serious finalists for the job: the Californian Knee and Bruce Mills, then an APD assistant chief, now chief of the auxiliary forces merged into Public Safety and Emergency Management Services. The rank and file clearly favored Mills, APD sources recall, and the union publicly supported him. Lesson learned, said one source: "The union will not come out and say anything this time, because last time they did and you can see how well that worked out."
The choice of Knee (who retired last year to become a private security consultant in Afghanistan) was a surprise, and the judgment on his tenure has been mixed. He did a good job decentralizing the department, realizing community-policing strategies that had long been promised but only haltingly implemented. That was what city management most specifically expected of him, and he did that job well. He also reached out to minority neighborhoods in personal ways that had been beyond the talents (or desire) of previous APD administrators.
But Knee's public communication skills were at best limited. He would flush beet-red whenever asked an unpredictable or challenging question and was nearly incapable of making eye contact, instead staring off into the distance. At critical points during his tenure in the wake of the "burn baby burn" incident over the fire at Midtown Live, for example the city's most forceful public statements came not from Knee but from Futrell. That meant that observers couldn't help but wonder: Who, exactly, was in charge at APD?
The Ellison Conundrum
In recent months, Knee's reputation has actually improved, thanks to an inevitable comparison to the leadership of acting Chief Cathy Ellison. Ellison is truly a nice person, numerous people have told me, but they rush to add she's no chief. She ain't even a Chief Knee. Her disciplinary actions have been erratic the recent 45-day suspension of Sgt. Jeff Slater, primarily for looking at an online personal ad that the city contends (but can't prove) was racy, and the startling, and never explained, demotion of Assistant Chief Charlie Ortiz have been viewed inside and outside the department with much skepticism. Many officers and, interestingly, several regular APD critics say Ellison's decisions reveal an inattentiveness to detail and a disregard for consistency in the disciplinary process, leaving department morale unsteady and without a rudder of clearly articulated administrative expectation and that's good neither for the cops nor the community.
The sense that Ellison is simply not ready for prime time is why there is little, if any, privately expressed support for her bid to be named chief. "She's a very nice person but significantly in over her head," one officer told me (a virtually universal opinion among those closely following the candidate search). "No grasp of what's going on in the department."
It may be that this lukewarm response to Ellison is at least partly due to gender bias in the heavily masculine world of law enforcement. Even so, the lack of enthusiasm for Ellison's candidacy inevitably reflects as well on Futrell's decision to appoint Ellison acting chief and to include her as a finalist for the permanent job. And the same dynamic plays a role for current critics of the overall chief-selection process, as designed by Futrell.
American Civil Liberties Union Central Texas Chapter President Debbie Russell (a member of the city's Public Safety Task Force) has been a publicly vocal critic of the process, and not the only one. Fellow task force member Richard Franklin, president of the Black Austin Democrats, says that although Futrell promised to bring the community into the discussion early on and to maintain that conversation, she hasn't followed through. "She says she's bringing in the community from day one, but we've been cut out from day one," he said. "It's all been absurd, the way it has been done."
When asked during a recent phone interview to respond, Futrell sighed aloud. "I understand that this is a post that needs a great deal of community support and needs a great deal of public input," she said. "There's never been a police chief selection that hasn't been heavily criticized," she continued and said she knows because she did the research. "No amount of communication is enough when you get into this. No amount of public input will feel like enough to some folks."
At length, Futrell reviewed each effort she's made over the last year to include community in the selection process. She brought together a vast network of community "stakeholders" some 75 people in all, representing "almost as many groups" to help develop a profile of an ideal chief. She chose (perhaps too narrowly) community members to sit on the 11-member panel that interviewed each of nine semifinalists for the job. She's developed a schedule for local interest groups advocacy groups such as the ACLU, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; community groups; and law enforcement (including a group of randomly selected patrol officers) to sit down for one-on-ones with the five remaining finalists. And, finally, she's scheduled three public meetings for next week, where everyone is invited to meet and ask questions of the candidates. At each step she has included the community, she insists, and that's never been done before. "Can you think of anything else you would've done?" she asks. "I'd be at a loss to know what else [I] could do."
Futrell's account of the process sounds great, say Franklin and Russell, but it's misleading. Sure, community members were asked to help develop a candidate profile, but in the end, few of their suggestions were included. Noticeably absent, says Franklin, were suggestions that being bilingual be listed as an "asset" (only one finalist, Acevedo, is fluent in Spanish) and that the city widen its search, allowing anyone with a rank of sergeant or above to apply for the job (the city accepted only top level administrators). "Just because you're the chief of Mayberry doesn't mean you're qualified," notes Franklin. In the end, they say, the profile posted to the city's Web site was bland and sterile. "We were supposedly involved in [developing] the profile, but it wasn't what we'd come up with," said Russell. "They threw that one out," she said, in favor of a tidy "beautiful snapshot of Austin of what we envision [Austin] as being."
This has left many wondering what specific criteria Futrell used to select the Fab Five and whether public input will matter at all in the final selection. At least two of the candidates meet the unpublished profile developed by stakeholders, says Russell, but, she and others note, at least two do not: Reinke, chief of police in the small resort town of Marco Island, Fla., who has applied for four other police chief jobs over the last year, and, regrettably perhaps, Ellison. How great a search could this be, one source asked last week, if Reinke and Ellison are still in the running?
Politically, it's now impossible for Futrell to cross Ellison off the list until the very end. Axing Ellison before then would jeopardize any remaining sense of leadership within APD; more importantly, such a move would leave Futrell vulnerable to direct questions about the wisdom of her choices. And Ellison's appointment itself reinforced a common perception that Futrell is most interested in appointing a police administrator whom she can control that those with strong personalities, or independent ideas, need not apply. The question on the minds of many stakeholders is whether Futrell will actually pick the best candidate for the job, regardless of whether that person would always toe the Futrell line.
This concern is at the heart of the criticism about the selection process. It is also what has silenced public comment about the candidates whom many believe are the strongest contenders for the job. That's unfortunate, because there's at least one whom everyone praises, Art Acevedo of the California Highway Patrol, and two others Dotson and Wiles who are considered strong contenders.
Austin with a chief capable of bringing together police and community is perhaps too much to wish for. Futrell, and what she thinks of the candidates, is also on many minds and consequently the subject of many rumors. Last week the buzz was that Futrell had already made her choice and was busy backroom-dealing with certain council members, offering support for their pet projects in exchange for a favorable vote for her chosen chief. She dismissed such talk out of hand. "There is lots of gossip. People like to be in the know, to feel like they're in the know," she told me. And this rumor, like most others, she said, is not true. "In fact, I'm agonizing over this choice." The candidates are so "dramatically different" that she's as yet found no clear front-runner. It'd be far easier, she believes, if she did have someone in mind. Then, during the public meetings, she'd be able to "see if my gravitation and instinct matched up" with whichever candidate visibly connects with the public.
Instead, Futrell says adamantly, she's waiting for the public input to help make her own determination.