Police Chief Search Proves Importance of Openness
In April, 2001 I used this space to contrast the way the cities of Raleigh and Durham went about choosing their new city managers. I explained then that whereas Raleigh’s city officials cloaked the process in secrecy and played silly cat-and-mouse games with the press and public, “the Durham way involves releasing the names of all candidates who are under serious consideration, honing the list to three or four finalists, bringing them to town for public tours and interviews, inviting comment from the local citizenry, including the entire council in the process, and giving local reporters the opportunity to visit the finalists home cities and write detailed profiles of them.”
Durham followed a similar process this year in its search for a new police chief to replace Teresa Chambers, who resigned earlier this year to become head of the U.S. Park Police. Although the final outcome isn’t known as of the date this is being written, the results to date have proven that “the Durham way” is the right way.
In July, Durham City Manager Marcia Conner (who herself was chosen via the selection process that I lauded 18 months ago) announced that three candidates were under consideration: Steve Chalmers, a veteran of the Durham force serving as interim chief; William Carcara, chief of police in Jefferson County, Kentucky; and Gregory Watkins, a retired deputy chief from Kansas City, Missouri. Over a two-week period the finalists were paraded before the public, the press and the police department. They submitted to citizens’ questions at a public forum. They gave interviews. And reporters from area newspapers and television stations dug into their backgrounds and profiled them in print and on the air.
Chalmers, the favorite of his Durham police colleagues and a majority of the city council members, apparently was eliminated in early August when the Oldani Group, the search firm hired by the city, raised questions about his truthfulness. Oldani officials said that Chalmers had denied ever having been “arrested or convicted,” but that he in fact had been arrested in 1982 on assault charges filed by his former wife, from whom he subsequently was divorced. Chalmers said he had misunderstood the question as asking whether he had been “arrested and convicted,” and he had answered “no” because his wife had dropped the assault charge.
On August 5, city manager Conner announced that she had chosen Watkins, who was the first choice of a 13-member citizens advisory board set up to help with the selection. For the next two weeks, Watkins gave interviews and basked in the glow of congratulatory columns and editorials.
Meanwhile, the reporters kept digging.
On August 22, reporters from The News & Observer interviewed both chief-designate Watkins and city manager Conner about some of their findings that the Oldani firm had missed. They asked about the fact that Watkins had been married six times; about Missouri court documents from 1992 in which his fourth wife alleged a pattern of physical and psychological abuse; about Kansas court documents from that same year showing that Watkins’ girl friend had accused him of threatening her and damaging her car, leading a judge to enter a restraining order against him; and about criminal charges, later expunged, stemming from the girlfriend’s accusations. That afternoon, two weeks before he was to be sworn in, Watkins resigned the office he had yet to hold.
In light of all that’s happened, it’s easy to understand why some Durham officials might question whether their way of selecting high-profile public appointees indeed is the right way. After all, Conner is embarrassed. Oldani is embarrassed. Watkins is embarrassed. And as of today, Durham still doesn’t have a police chief.
But the Durham way is the right way, and this sad episode proves it. True, the Durham way so far has produced more embarrassment than results, but it also has spared Durham the ignominy of finding out after the fact that its police chief has some nasty domestic skeletons in his legal closet that he didn’t bother to disclose when he was asked if there was anything in his background that might embarrass Durham.
As for the search firm, which has returned a portion of its fee in response to criticism from the city manager and council members, it deserves to be embarrassed. After all, if you are in the fact-finding business, you’re supposed to find the facts. Fortunately, Durham’s policy of disclosing finalists permitted society’s fact-finder, the press, to find out what the city’s paid consultants didn’t.
Yes, the Durham way is the right way.
It should be the law.