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Selecting a New Police Chief

March 16, 2018 3:49 PM
by Rick Cole

Selecting a New Police Chief

It’s all about character.

Of course there are myriad factors that go into selecting a Police Chief.  Their experience, reputation, track record of achievement.  Their attitudes, values, even opinions.  Few of us can see into another person’s soul – especially in a professional job selection process.  So we use other yardsticks to take the measure of a person.

Yet in the end, the choice comes down to who do you trust to lead a department where every year there are 130,000 calls for service and literally hundreds of thousands of staff/citizens interactions.  They range from pulling someone over for a traffic violation — to stooping over to help a young student with their homework at the Police Activities League computer room — to arresting a drunk and belligerent bar patron — to showing up at the door of a violent domestic dispute — to writing a parking citation when a citizen comes running over to object — to directing gridlocked traffic on a hot and crowded summer day at the Pier.  By the very nature of things, even if the overwhelming majority of those encounters go well, there will be some that don’t.  The ones that don’t can end up on national television. Or in a viral video. Or in a courtroom trial. Or even end in the death of a citizen or an officer.

The stakes don’t get any higher.

Only one person at a time wears four stars.  The Chief is ultimately responsible for every one of those bright — and dark — moments.  Only one person will stand at the microphones to take questions when something has gone terribly wrong – an earthquake, a mass shooting, the violent death of a child. 

So how an applicant for the job answers a question about immigration or how they perform during a mock press conference or what they say about their prior career challenges  these only go so far.  Even people who have worked side by side with someone may not fully know how that person will react when they put on those four stars and bear the responsibility of 24/7 leadership.

"Character is about judgment, resilience, humility — and above all admitting and taking responsibility for one’s shortcomings."

They say that courage is not the lack of fear.  That courage is facing your fear and acting in spite of it.  In the same way character is not automatically making the right choices.  Character is facing adversity  whether it is what happens to us or (all too often) what we do to ourselves.  Character is facing life’s trials  and rising above them.

Which is to say that — to me at least — character is not defined as someone who is perfect (still looking for that applicant to hire!)  Character is about judgment, resilience, humility — and above all admitting and taking responsibility for one’s shortcomings.  And learning from those lapses, not so you never make another mistake, but so you avoid repeating the same mistake. 

All of the finalists for the Chief’s job in Santa Monica were people of character.  In their lives and their law enforcement careers, each had earned the stripes on their sleeves or stars on their collars.  At the end, I had to make a hard choice among two outstanding leaders in the field, measuring their fit and their character as best I could — with the help of a rigorous process and all those who participated in the battery of reviews and interviews. 

One thing that stands out in my thinking about my choice of Chief Cynthia Renaud to lead the Santa Monica Police Department.  It was not so much the decisive factor, as it was the validation that I was making the right decision. 

It is a story I heard from both sides involved.  When Cindy Renaud was a recruit in the police academy, her supervising Tac Officer happened to be Jackie Seabrooks of the SMPD.  Fanatically determined to meet the physical, mental and psychological demands of becoming an officer, Cindy ignored the pain of stress fractures. Then one day, while she was running with her class, her left leg snapped.  Taken to the hospital, x-rays showed the right leg was fractured as well.

Sitting at home, staring at casts on both her legs, Chief Renaud was stunned to get a call from Seabrooks.  Jackie urged her not to give up, telling her that she had a promising future in law enforcement.  Because of that phone call, when her legs had healed eleven months later, Cindy returned to the academy and embarked on that promising career.  It is a career with a new chapter that begins at the end of April when Chief Renaud pins on the same four stars that Chief Seabrooks wore until last year.

Character is not static.  It’s not like granite or diamonds.  It is made of flesh and bone.  No one knows what big tests lie ahead in the coming years – or what small tests will crop up tomorrow.  But whether in law enforcement or accounting or the fire service or engineering or custodial services, character is essential.  Our character is at the core of how we serve the public – and how we treat each other. 

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