Saturday, October 18, 2014

Police Promotions

Posted By on Sat, Oct 18, 2014 at 4:50 PM

Being a bit old school, I was put off at first. Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills was on the phone asking me to take part in a community panel that would help him decide who to promote to the position of EPD captain. The positions are critical to Mills’ plan for policing Eureka, which involves splitting the city in half geographically, with one captain responsible for the day-to-day operations of each. He said he wanted good people in place and was reshaping the department’s promotional process.

Historically, EPD promotions have been an insular affair, with testing and interviewing happening behind closed doors and including no one outside the law enforcement community. But Mills, who came from San Diego about a year ago to take over the department, was changing that, putting together three interview panels — one of community members, another of Eureka department heads and the last of law enforcement officials — in an attempt to get a more holistic feel for the candidates, and how they respond to different people and situations.

The catch for me was that large parts of the process were going to be confidential and I would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement. And, if I joined the panel, I would be asking questions provided by Mills, with only a limited opportunity to ask follow up questions. As a journalist, telling me I’m not allowed to ask my own questions and that what’s said needs to be kept secret is generally a deal breaker. Further, I believe journalists should keep their sources and subjects at arm’s length to preserve objectivity as much as possible. Things can get sticky and lines can grow blurry when you get too close, and having a hand in deciding who gets promoted in an agency I cover seemed all too close for my tastes. But, I told Mills I’d mull it over.

Ultimately, the citizen in me won the internal debate. Humboldt County is my home, I reasoned, and it’s a better place with a better EPD. As a reporter who’s covered the department for eight years, I probably understand it better than most — I’ve seen its strengths, its shortcomings and its relationship with the community all play out on a near daily basis. And, I thought, the experience would leave me even better informed about the department and its direction. Plus, Mills said I could report on the process, as long as I didn’t divulge any information about the candidates or how I graded them.

So, I arrived at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center on Oct. 14 a bit reluctant but intrigued.

Mills greeted the panelists. Joining me on the community panel were local philanthropist and homeless advocate Betty Chinn, College of the Redwoods Trustee Bruce Emad and Eureka City Councilwoman Linda Atkins. The department head panel consisted of interim Finance Director Wendy Howard, Parks and Recreation Director Miles Slattery, Chief Building Official Brian Gerving and City Councilman Mike Newman, while the law enforcement panel consisted of Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman, Humboldt County Sheriff’ Mike Downey and San Diego Police Department Capt. Dan Christman, who specializes in operational support and SWAT operations. An employee from Eureka’s personnel department joined each panel to help facilitate the conversation.

Mills explained his reasoning for the three panels. “As a department, we don’t treat people well,” Mills said, detailing why he wanted the candidates to have to field questions from a variety of community members. The department has sometimes acted as “an island unto itself” on C Street, he said, explaining why he felt it important to see how the candidates interacted with other department heads within the city. And, finally, he said he wanted the candidates grilled by some cops from other agencies who could really press them about tactics and critical incident responses, saying, “We need people who can slow these things down.”

Mills also shared what seemed to be a pretty blunt take on the state of EPD, saying the department has a morale problem, with fissures and some employee groups who haven’t historically played well amongst each other. (Mills assigned Kevil Gilmartin’s Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement as required reading for the candidates). The department is also only just getting a grip on the tenets of community policing, he said, beginning the process of a departmental culture shift.

Mills pressed the panelists to put the candidates on edge. The chief said he wanted to see the candidates sweat, see if they could articulate the department’s philosophy and ideology when put off balance by a potentially unfriendly panelist, whether it be a reporter who they think “may not be on EPD’s side,” a true-blue capitalist like Emad, a council member or some out-of-town police captain taking a critical eye to their training and know-how. Ultimately, Mills said, he wants the department’s next captains to be in line for the chief’s chair when he’s ready to move on, so the promotions are important. “Make it hard,” Mills told the panelists before making eye contact with Slattery specifically. “Miles, I’m counting on you.”

“This is the first time I get to make a cop nervous,” Slattery quipped, drawing laughs from the other panelists as they sipped coffee and nibbled at bagels.

From there, the panels set up in different rooms and interviewed the candidates one-by-one, asking each six questions (see below) and grading them in five categories, ranging from experience to ideology. Then, each panel ranked the candidates in its order of preference. Then, all the panelists came together with Mills and debriefed, offering feedback on the process — what worked, what didn’t — and evaluations of the candidates as individuals and a group. The discussion was fascinating, as each panel looked at the candidates through a different lens, using different metrics, but all came to virtually identical conclusions.

In an interview after the panels were complete, Mills said he was very pleased with the process and found tremendous value in it on multiple levels. First, he said the multiple panel process helped reinforce to the candidates that EPD is part of a greater community and that, “on order to be successful here, you really need to understand what the community wants in this democracy and police from that perspective.” Mills said he was also pleased that the three panels were nearly identical in their evaluations.

Mills said EPD will announce the captain promotions, as well as others to sergeant and dispatcher, in the near future.

The following is a selection of questions Mills prepared for the panels. The possible answers weren't provided to candidates but were given to panelists to help evaluate candidates' responses.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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