City Manager Spencer Cronk, with just 13 weeks on the job, concludes that Austin need look no farther than its own backyard for a permanent police chief. Cronk’s narrow approach contrasts with methods of former city managers, who cast their nets nationally to search for police chiefs and key executives.
In naming just one finalist – interim Police Chief Brian Manley – Cronk denies Austin the opportunity to compare the best candidates, including Manley.
“There are several key characteristics I’m looking for in my executive appointments: a focus on partnerships, a commitment to community involvement, and a positive and innovative view toward the future,” Cronk said. “I believe that Manley embodies these characteristics.”
Cronk’s decision comes as Manley is riding a wave of public support for his role in helping to bring to conclusion the serial-bomber case that dominated headlines in March. Cronk appears to have taken the politically expedient path, appeasing Mayor Steve Adler and some of his other City Council bosses who made clear they wanted Manley elevated to permanent chief without competition.
More than a month ago, in an interview, Adler described a process for naming the next chief similar to the one Cronk laid out last week. Both approaches advanced Manley as a sole finalist; both tacked public engagement on the back end. Cronk’s approach does go further, stipulating that he could change direction and do a national search. But the threshold for that is high: It would be up to the public to change Cronk’s mind.
To that point, Cronk has rolled out a series of public meetings he says would engage Austin residents with “more rigor in this vetting than from a national search.”
But meaningful public input is best achieved before a decision, so the input informs a decision. In doing it the opposite way, Cronk stacks the odds in Manley’s favor.
Instead of being asked about the qualities a permanent chief should bring to the job — and using that information to craft a profile of the best person — Austin residents are being asked to identify reasons that would disqualify Manley from being permanent chief.
Frankly, we don’t need staged public meetings to address that question: Manley is qualified to be chief. Manley has the experience. He is a good listener and popular with the City Council, business owners, police unions and community leaders. He is affable, dedicated and a straight arrow, with many describing him as a “Boy Scout.”
Manley’s Austin roots run deep, graduating from Johnston High School — now Eastside Memorial High — and spending his entire law enforcement career, which started in 1990, with Austin police. Also important: The 50-year-old husband and father has no apparent blemishes on his record that would disqualify him morally. Manley made a few serious missteps in the Austin bomber case, but he has apologized for them.
What cannot be answered by Cronk’s way of selecting a permanent chief is whether Manley is the best person to lead the Austin Police Department at this point.
If that were Cronk’s focus – as it should be – he would be conducting a national search for a permanent chief, with Manley named as one finalist in the pool. Austin deserves a process in which finalists compete for top cop.
The challenges facing the police department are formidable:
• Police officers are working without a contract after the City Council rejected a deal that both city staff and the Austin Police Association agreed on. The city has saved millions of dollars by mostly maintaining the status quo regarding pay raises, benefits and perks. But the absence of a contract has greatly weakened citizen oversight of police — a hard-won concession from the police union that has helped improve accountability. Also lost were hiring and promotion practices that have resulted in better prepared officers and leaders. The return of a system that bases promotions on a multiple-choice test threatens the racial, ethnic and gender diversity the department achieved under more rigorous standards.
• Violent crime has crept up over the past few years. Manley attributes the trend to Austin’s growth and a shortage of officers to adequately serve the ballooning population. He is pushing for 170 more officers and 30 more detectives over five years. The debate over that request centers on money.
• The culture of the police department still is woefully lacking in its treatment of African-Americans and Latinos, people with mental disabilities, and the homeless . Former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo made big strides in addressing that culture, stressing public accountability and transparency. We give Manley credit for a de -escalation policy he adopted in January.
Nonetheless, there is a long way to go in transforming a recalcitrant culture — and that change is not coming fast enough.
We witnessed that mindset in the March bombings in statements by police that cast aspersions on an African-American father – Anthony House — killed by the bomber. Police first suggested House might be the bomber and accidentally or intentionally blew himself up, even with his 8-year-old daughter home at the time. Officers also advanced a theory that the bomber confused House for a suspected drug dealer who lived nearby.
Upon hearing the bomber’s confession, Manley described the bomber, who was white, as a “very troubled young man,” for which he apologized, but not before the damage was done. Many African-Americans pointed out the difference in that description and the way police typically describe blacks or Latinos accused of violent crimes.
To his credit, Manley apologized. There is an argument to be made, however, that an outsider – with no ties to the police union or city brass – might achieve better results.
We realize Cronk is new to the job and might feel pressured to yield to vocal segments of Austin. We remind him that as city manager, his job is not to bow to the council, acquiesce to those with influence, or make the popular choice. Cronk’s job is to do what is in the best interests of the city. That means finding the very best police chief.
That job is best done the old-fashioned way: through a national search.