VIEWPOINTS: City Hall should value public input in police chief search

As Austin recovers from a reign of terror that gripped the city for much of March, some city officials are calling for interim Police Chief Brian Manley to be named permanent chief of the Austin Police Department. Such a move would bypass a national search and eliminate the public engagement typically used in filling the city’s most critical positions.

With Mayor Steve Adler jumping on that bandwagon, it’s fair to question whether the process for choosing a police chief is shaping up to be more a political coronation than a deliberate search.

That would be unfortunate for Austin residents, who should have the benefit of participating in selecting a new chief in a transparent process that includes Manley among a diverse pool of qualified candidates. That is essential for community buy-in. Austin officials should welcome such a process in which candidates publicly lay out a vision of community policing in a fast-growing city faced with big challenges.

Yet, in response to our question of whether there should be a national search, Adler replied: “My sense is no.

“Manley has done a good job. He is homegrown, is accessible and has wide support from all parts of the community. If the city manager came to (the council) and said he wanted to appoint Manley, I would support that.”

ALSO READ: Deadly Austin bombings were ‘domestic terrorism,’ police chief says

As per the city charter, the decision to search nationally or simply elevate Manley falls to Austin’s new city manager, Spencer Cronk, in a move that might yield clues about his independence from the council. Cronk told us he still is thinking through matters as he learns more about the city and police department.

He should not rush the decision. The police chief job is perhaps the most important position Cronk will fill during his tenure. The chief determines the vision, culture and operations of a department that protects and polices Austin’s nearly 1 million residents.

The previous chief, Art Acevedo, was chosen by a national search that included public forums in which finalists spoke to residents and answered their questions. Feedback from those forums helped then-City Manager Toby Futrell choose Acevedo over other finalists. It also helped Acevedo move a recalcitrant department from its traditional policing methods and culture of secrecy to a more modern, skilled department with a greater focus on community engagement, accountability and transparency. He knew, and officers did, too, that the community had his back.

Similar challenges face Austin police now. The department has had several shootings and violent arrests of African-Americans, such as Breaion King, a teacher who was slammed to the ground by an officer during a minor traffic stop.

RELATED: Austin officials fumbled 4 chances to address Breaion King case

The next chief must show more progress with de-escalation efforts and shootings involving people of color and those with mental illness. Since January, there have been six officer-involved shootings in the city, according to police figures.

The city needs a chief who will address staffing levels in ways that keep the city safe and bend the spending curve. It needs a chief with vision, experience and gumption — who, when warranted, will stand up to the politically robust Austin Police Association, but also will motivate and defend the rank and file. Austin needs a chief who can: deftly navigate tensions between officers and those they police; strengthen public trust; and effectively manage public expectations.

Understandably, Manley’s star has risen following the bombs that terrorized Austin residents, despite key missteps that reignited tensions between Austin police and the city’s minority communities. Officers were too quick to declare the first bomb that killed an African-American father preparing to take his daughter to school an isolated incident, suggesting the bomb was meant for a drug dealer and later, a suicide.

RELATED: City’s response to Austin bomber renews tension over racial disparities

For three weeks, Manley was the face of the coordinated law enforcement effort, which included the FBI and ATF, that brought down self-described psychopath Mark Conditt, who left package bombs on residents’ doorsteps. The East Austin explosions killed two African-Americans and injured two other people of color.

Conditt expanded his bombing campaign to West Austin, injuring two white men. Thankfully, law enforcement’s dogged efforts and breaks in the case stopped Conditt and saved lives.

Against that backdrop, it would be tempting to appoint Manley, who has been a reliable caretaker since he was appointed 1 ½ years ago. Council Member Alison Alter rightly points out that Austin is a city in recovery that needs time “to think about what is the right thing for the city.”

She added: “The choice of permanent chief is one that has ramifications for the whole city, which is engaged in a conversation about policing. One way to continue that conversation is to do a search. You can say that and still think very highly of Manley.”

Phillips: Austin sees bombings, police response through separate eyes

We urge Cronk to stick to a national search his predecessors had used to fill high-profile jobs key to the city’s quality of life. They include fire chief, general managers of Austin Energy, chief equity officer and Austin Public Library director. The job of police chief tops that list; that person is a household name.

Pressure to hand Manley the job has come from at least two other members of the City Council – Delia Garza and Leslie Pool – and the police union. But opposing voices, mostly from African-American community activists, have decried such tactics as politicizing the bombings.

Like Alter, we are not arguing against selecting Manley. He has earned a place in a national search. But limiting the choice for the city’s top cop to just one person in the aftermath of a crisis thwarts public input and Austin’s way of picking chiefs.

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