Phoenix city manager will not seek public input on temporary police chief hire

July 19, 2022
Arizona Republic
Taylor Seely

Phoenix City Manager Jeff Barton will not release the names of candidates being considered to replace the outgoing police chief and does not plan to involve the public in the appointment process.  

City spokesperson Dan Wilson said the city needed to move quickly to fill the spot given the federal probe into the city's police force and that public involvement would require a lot of time. 

Meanwhile, the need to find a replacement is down to the wire, as Phoenix police Chief Jeri Williams is waiting until her replacement is found to step down. Williams announced her retirement in May. 

The "full public process is lengthy and important," Wilson said. For the hiring of a permanent replacement, it will include "public meetings, outreach to community and advisory groups, surveys and other opportunities for residents to participate." 

But the interim appointment "is intended to be temporary without a formal recruitment process," he said.

Williams' successor, however, won't just take over until a permanent replacement can be found. Barton's appointment as chief is expected to remain in the post through the duration of the Department of Justice investigation, and recruitment for a permanent hire won't start until the probe concludes, according to Wilson.

Mayor Kate Gallego declined to comment on the appointment process but a spokesperson said the mayor was comfortable with Barton's approach. 

Councilman Carlos Garcia, who rose to prominence as a community organizer outspoken against certain police practices, said he believes the community should be more involved in the process but that he was trusting in Barton to make the right call. 

"It's not an optimal situation," Councilman Jim Waring said. "I haven't had any input on this, either. It's not a criticism, and I understand why it's being handled the way it's being handled, but the decision needs to be well received by the wide swath of the public, and there's no way to know until they announce the name.

Community groups: Disappointing but not a surprise 

Community groups critical of Phoenix police say the lack of public involvement is disappointing but par for the course.

"It's almost inconsequential. ... We're so far down the hole that even if they did involve the community, we're still going to have grievances," Jacob Raiford of W.E. Rising said. "It's just another case of refusal to take the communities' thoughts into consideration."

Shalae Flores with Poder In Action said she doesn't believe the police can be reformed regardless of who's in charge, but that if the police department continues to exist, then the public should be included. 

"Those most affected should hold the decision making power," Flores said. 

Interim appointment could last years

The temporary police chief, who will be responsible for leading law enforcement efforts in the fifth most populous city in the U.S. and overseeing a $700 million-plus budget, could be in the post for awhile. 

That's because Barton doesn't want to hire a permanent replacement until after the federal investigation is complete. Instead, Barton wants his appointment to guide the city through the probe. 

The city has not begun the hiring process for a permanent chief since officials don't want it "to take years," Wilson said.

The Department of Justice launched an investigation in August into the Phoenix Police Department involving allegations of excessive use of force, retaliation against protesters, discriminatory policing and inappropriate treatment of people with disabilities and experiencing homelessness.

"The average investigation in the last decade has taken approximately 18 months to complete," Wilson said.

The temporary police chief also will have to navigate a department struggling with recruitment and retention issues, which the city is hoping will improve after the City Council in June approved $19.8 million in pay hikes for officers.

Waring said, "They have a lot of incentive to get this right." He said he hoped the appointee would have experience as a former police chief or at least assistant police chief of another large operation.

"They understand what's at stake," Waring said, "and they'll make the best decision with what they have available." 

A logical substitution for Williams may have been second-in-command Michael Kurtenbach, but Barton said soon after Williams' announcement that he would seek an external candidate.

Kurtenbach is vacating his post July 25 as "executive assistant chief" to become one of several "assistant chiefs." City officials said he was being "realigned" to make way for the interim chief to select a second-in-command.  

Three police commanders sued Kurtenbach and Williams in April, accusing them of falsely claiming they weren't informed of plans to charge protesters as gang members after a 2020 protest. The commanders' claim they were unfairly demoted from assistant chiefs after investigations into the matter.

The gang charges against the protesters were dropped when the Maricopa County Attorney's Office acknowledged the charges were "deeply flawed."

An outside review done at the request of the county attorney found numerous problems, including that prosecutors overlooked or ignored "the misstatements, exaggerations, and outright false statements of the Phoenix Police Response team."

Williams, too, was caught up in that controversy. The city commissioned its own investigation last year that said Williams did not know about the plans to charge protesters as gang members. She received a one-day suspension.

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