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Who's Next? 

With Mills' exit, Eureka gets busy searching for its next police chief

Before former Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills had left the building, City Manager Greg Sparks was already setting the wheels in motion to find his replacement.

As the Journal went to press, Sparks was meeting with one of the owners of the recruitment firm Peckham and McKenney, Inc., guiding him through a series of meetings with city council members and the mayor, officers and community members, to put together a "position profile," or a vision of what Eureka's next chief will be. Hiring a police chief is a complicated, high-stakes process. And it's easy to forget that it's one that didn't go so well the last time around, when a total of three candidates turned down offers or withdrew from the process in its final stages.

The city fired former Chief Garr Nielsen on June 24, 2011, and 14 months later hadn't found a replacement. A long, drawn-out hiring process had seen two interview panels whittle a pool of seven applicants down to three finalists — all sheriff's lieutenants, two from out of the area and one local. But when the local candidate declined the city's offer, then soon-to-be-retiring City Manager David Tyson scrapped the process in August of 2012, opting to let his successor choose the city's next chief.

In January of the following year, new City Manager Bill Panos started the process anew, with a national search that yielded 50 applicants, despite a job posting that didn't sugar coat its description of Eureka as a little city with big-city problems. In July, word leaked that Panos had offered the post to Michael Johnson, a former EPD cop who'd been involved in the city's most controversial officer-involved shooting and was then working as the city of Anderson's police chief. There was some outcry at the prospect of Johnson's return to helm EPD and Panos appeared to drag his feet, prompting Johnson to send a scathing letter withdrawing his name from consideration. That letter reportedly led a local applicant to withdraw his name from the running, leaving Panos to turn to Mills, whose hire he announced in September of 2013.

Careful to say he was very happy with the end result of Eureka's prior search, Sparks said he's hoping things will move more smoothly and quickly this time around.

He said he hopes to get the position profile locked down within a week and to get it posted by the end of next week.

"It's a fairly aggressive timeline but I want to be interviewing finalists within about three months," Sparks said.

Sparks has already tapped Capt. Steve Watson to serve as the department's interim chief and both Watson and fellow Capt. Brian Stephens are expected to apply for the permanent position. But while he said continuing EPD's focus on community policing is a must, Sparks said local candidates will not be given any inherent advantage.

"We want a process that leads us to hire the best person for the job, whether it's an internal or external candidate," Sparks said.

Whoever steps into the post will take over a more stable department than Mills did but many of the same challenges, as well, namely an entrenched homeless population, a drug epidemic and staggering property crime rates.

"We continue to be a small city with a fairly small department that deals with kind of urban crime issues, with guns and drugs and I think a pretty difficult criminal element here," Sparks said.

Sparks also noted that the recruitment and retention of officers remains a challenge, due in part to compensation levels that are lower than many similar sized departments throughout the state. And with increasing pension costs and relatively stagnant revenues, Sparks said the city is projecting lean budget years on the horizon.

"We're going to need a strategic, innovative thinker," Sparks said.

Ultimately, the decision of who to tap as Eureka's next police chief belongs to Sparks, though the new chief's contract will have to be approved by the city council, per the city charter.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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