Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Terry is not retiring anytime soon, at least as far as I know, but that day will come. And when it does, as has been the case since the Bakersfield City Council selected Thomas A. Baker as its first city marshal 125 years ago, a new executive will be chosen for that vital and highly visible office.
If voters approve Measure L on Tuesday, however, one noteworthy change from past practice will take place: The new chief won’t necessarily be the guy down the hall.
Measure L would modify the city charter to allow the pool of candidates for police chief to include outsiders: Bakersfield, like most cities of consequential size, would be allowed to recruit and required to consider law enforcement professionals from outside the ranks of the Bakersfield Police Department. And, just for good measure, the charter amendment would compel the Bakersfield Fire Department to make the same change in hiring procedure.
The amendment is up for a vote because it was so ordered by the state Department of Justice as part of a stipulated agreement stemming from the California attorney general’s four-year investigation into allegations that the BPD exhibited a pattern of unreasonable force, stops, searches and seizures and failed to exercise appropriate supervision, all documented prior to Terry’s time as chief.
Bakersfield police bitterly disagreed with some of those conclusions, but it is what it is.
Stipulation No. 124, on Page 37 of the 66-page agreement, calls for the Bakersfield City Council “to propose a charter amendment for the November 2022 General Election which will seek to permit the appointment of a person from an external agency to the position of chief of police.” And so, with minimal fanfare, so as not to appear critical of the Police Department, the council did as instructed.
Thing is, a charter amendment requiring the city to consider outside candidates for police chief would be a good thing. Dynamic organizations invite new, creative approaches. Outside perspectives are valued in the private sector, especially in industries facing dramatically changing circumstances, and few “industries” are facing more change than law enforcement. Not only must 21st-century police departments deal with social and political upheaval, they face workforce hiring and retention challenges, motivational issues, competition from other agencies and an armed and tech-savvy populace that is ever more dangerous and sophisticated.
Cities have plenty of sound reasons to hire from within. Top internal candidates will already have well-established relationships with community groups and other important constituencies, as well as connections with key people in city government, including the city manager’s office.
They will have encountered local citizens and noncitizens in all manner of emergency call-outs and confrontations, attended innumerable community meetings, and participated in citywide events both mundane and passionate, all of which contribute to the kind of relationship a city looks for in its police chief.
They will have institutional knowledge, an understanding of the nuances of their diverse community, and well-documented professional records.
And, perhaps most important, they will have earned the trust of fellow officers.
An outside candidate for police chief, however, will have an easier time changing the culture of the organization, if that’s what is called for — and, though it may be a tough pill for many, the DOJ says it is. As Billy Grogan, a police chief in suburban Atlanta, has noted in his Top Cop Leadership blog, promoting from within may only perpetuate the status quo. With an external hire, change is not merely tolerated, it is often expected.
Internal hires tend to have both positive and negative relationships with members of their own police department, Grogan notes. Negative relationships may lead some to try to undermine the new chief, and positive relationships can potentially be worse, leading to grumbling about favoritism. Either way, long-standing relationships can be a challenge. With an external hire, everyone has a clean slate.
External hires bring fresh ideas that have grown out of the circumstances and experiences of previous career stops. Internal hires will have been exposed to the same issues and the same solutions as everyone else in the internal pool of candidates.
Outside hires can have an advantage over internal hires when it comes to getting the support necessary to make changes. They are viewed differently, almost like contracted consultants. Selecting an outside candidate is an acknowledgment that change is needed, so the city council might be more likely to support those changes.
Internal hires will not have previously served as police chiefs, so the city manager will be hiring an unproven candidate. External hires are usually either current police chiefs or will have served in that role before. They likely will have had broader experience and may have supervised larger staffs, managed larger budgets or solved more intractable challenges. Experience matters.
None of this is to say Bakersfield cannot, has not or will not produce internal candidates for police chief with the leadership skills, talent for innovation, and passion for the art and science of policing that the job demands. All things being equal, a locally bred police chief is better than one with no emotional connection to the city he or she has been hired to serve. And every police chief has to start somewhere.
But Bakersfield owes it to itself to keep the door open to new ideas and fresh approaches. A yes vote on Measure L at least makes that possible.