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The modern way to hire a big-city police chief

When it comes to picking a city's top cop, closed-door selection processes have been replaced by highly public exercises where everyone gets to vet the candidates — who must have better community-relations skills than ever.

Why it matters: In the post-George-Floyd era, with policing under utmost scrutiny, the choosing of a police chief has become something akin to an election, with the need to build consensus around a candidate. And the candidate pool has gotten smaller.

  • "This is a turning point for policing in America," says Gary Peterson, CEO of Public Sector Search & Consulting, a boutique headhunting firm that exclusively handles police chief searches.
  • "Communities are demanding — they want to have input in who's going to be their next police leader."

Driving the news: Following last summer's protests, there has been high turnover among police chiefs in big cities, with many retiring or switching jobs to other cities. High-profile searches are under way in San Jose, Albuquerque, Miami and Memphis.

  • In San Jose — where the police sprayed rubber bullets at protesters last summer, provoking a civil rights lawsuit — a top-down selection approach was scrapped in favor of exhaustive and rigorous community vetting.
  • Seven finalists — culled from an intentional effort to gather a highly diverse candidate pool — engaged in a public community forum where they answered some of 500 questions submitted by the public.
  • They then faced days of grilling from panels representing 50 community and internal stakeholders.
  • "I was looking for a process different from what we’ve done in the past," San Jose city manager David Sykes tells Axios.
  • The pool has been narrowed to three internal candidates and a veteran of the Pittsburgh police, and a selection is imminent.

Where it stands: Dallas, which just hired San Jose's former police chief, went through a similar exercise. And Albuquerque, where the police department is under a federal consent decree, is doing the same.

  • Dallas picked Eddie Garcia — who attempted to ban the use of rubber bullets in San Jose, but was overruled by the city council — in part because he'll be the first Latino chief in a city that's 41% Latinx.
  • But some chiefs may be seen — rightly or wrongly — as too stigmatized to withstand such public tire-kicking.
  • Minneapolis chief Medaria Arradondo, who was in charge when George Floyd was murdered there, was briefly a finalist for the San Jose job, but withdrew his name from consideration (he didn't say why).

Albuquerque — where the search is ongoing — has "conducted over 40 community input sessions to hear directly from folks about what they would like to see in the next chief," per the city's police chief search website.

  • "The city also received nearly 2,300 responses to the online survey seeking input."

The big picture: The job comes with a "tremendous amount of scrutiny," as Sykes puts it — far more than in years past, ex-chiefs say — and the changing nature of the position means that different skills are at a premium.

  • It's still necessary to have superb operational and leadership skills, but now the third leg of the talent tripod — community engagement experience — is coming to the fore.
  • "It used to be a 'nice-to-have' — now it's a 'must-have,'" says Peterson, the headhunter who's advising San Jose and handled recent searches for Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco, among others.

The candidate pool has shrunk under the weight of all the demands, police recruiters say.

  • "While demonstrably smaller, the folks in the pool are really committed to reimagining policing and advancing it to the next level," says Peterson. "That's really important."

The bottom line: Transparency in the recruitment and selection process is a trend that's here to stay.

  • "Given what we've been through over the summer with the protests and the murder of George just seemed like we needed to do something different in the process here," says Sykes of San Jose.
  • "We wanted to take some of the mystery" out of it and " do a much more kind of rigorous evaluative process."

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