Seeking a tool to attract top police-chief candidates, the Seattle City Council’s public-safety committee today approved a measure that would allow chiefs to hire law-enforcement officers outside the department as assistant and deputy chiefs.
The new ordinance is likely 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 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 Department of Justice to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
“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.
The public-safety committee, which is chaired by Harrell, first took up the measure Dec. 4. At that time, Harrell said the council needed to weigh the benefits of providing a useful tool while considering whether the change would hamper morale by restricting the ability to rise within the department.
The Police Department’s two unions, including the one representing lieutenants and captains, both asked to bargain the issue. One consideration was whether to limit the number of outside hires.
But in today’s 3 to 0 vote, the committee placed no restrictions. Currently, the Police Department has six assistant chiefs, with no one holding the rank of deputy chief.
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 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,” the councilmembers 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 outside hires in the top police ranks.
Additionally, of 19 cities surveyed nationwide, 12 allow such appointments from outside, Harrell and Burgess noted.
It isn’t known why Seattle’s restriction was enacted, except that it occurred as part of creating the Public Safety Civil Service Commission.
Murray hopes to choose a permanent chief by April to replace Interim Police Chief Harry C. Bailey, a former Seattle assistant police chief who came out of retirement with a pledge not to pursue the job.