Wanted: West Valley City police chief who can restore public trust
Somewhere among the 36 applicants for top cop, West Valley City officials hope to find the candidate who can rebuild grass-roots confidence in a police department battered by scandal.
The qualifications they want in a police chief range from at least a decade of experience to a focus on ethics to strong communication skills.
"Our expectation is if they're hired by us, they are to restore public trust," Assistant City Manager Paul Isaac said.
And with several members of the West Valley force applying for the job, city administrators will have to grapple with the question of whether to move up an officer from the ranks or hire from the outside.
An internal candidate can restore trust, even if an entire department is tainted, though it would be harder, according to Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada.
"The job requires someone with the energy and expertise required to turn things around," Stephens said. "These are not the type of situations where one learns how to be a police chief. It helps to have had that experience, which obviously pushes you to an outside candidate."
He also said an effective chief must have a reputation for integrity, good communication skills, a vision for policing the community and the willingness to listen to criticism.
Other experts in policing agree that a track record of strong, ethical leadership is key.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., said a new chief will need to investigate any situation that arises and implement changes.
"The public needs to know what happened and what the chief will do about it," he said.
And Isaac said West Valley's ideal candidate also will be able to boost the morale of the department's cops.
The new hire will face a difficult task. The West Valley City Police Department has been under fire for the alleged actions of its Neighborhood Narcotics Unit the subject of investigations into accusations of corruption and evidence mishandling that prompted prosecutors to throw out dozens of cases.
The department also has been criticized for its handling of the unsolved 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell and the fatal shooting in November of Danielle Willard by plainclothes police detectives during an alleged drug bust.
The job opened up with the March retirement of Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who cited medical reasons for his departure. The three dozen men and women who applied come from Alaska to Florida and points in between including several Utah cities, Isaac said.
The annual salary will be between $90,000 to $120,000, depending on the top pick's experience, plus benefits.
City administrators used Skype to conduct preliminary interviews and asked each candidate to make a video presentation on why a police chief has the inherent responsibility to instill public trust, using a May 27 editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune as a starting point. Thestaff editorial, "Losing our trust," discusses the erosion of faith in the nation's justice system.
Isaac said the candidates' demeanor, as well as the answer itself, were evaluated and the field has been narrowed to nine finalists, who underwent background checks and will come to West Valley City next week for further interviewing.
The finalists will take part in role-playing scenarios, such as being grilled by a reporter. Three or so of them will have one-on-one interviews with City Manager Wayne Pyle, who will appoint a new chief with the consent of the West Valley City Council. The city wants to have the position filled by Aug. 1.
"This is going to be a very strategic process," Isaac said. "Whoever we hire is going to be vetted properly."
James McLaughlin, executive director and general counsel of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said the job could be a good opportunity for a candidate who has the backing of the city.
However, if there are different visions for the department or nitpicking over how things are done, a new chief could run into trouble, he said.
"You can hire the best person, but if that person does not have the support of elected officials, then he or she is doomed to fail," McLaughlin said.
Mayor Mike Winder said he would like the new chief to be hands-on and able to identify problems early on.
"A new chief will bring different experiences, a fresh perspective, and a new tone to the department," Winder said. "We need that right now."
By the numbers
The West Valley City Police Department has a staff of four deputy chiefs, 11 lieutenants, 18 sergeants, an additional 156 sworn officers and 45 civilian employees. It operates on an annual budget of $20 million.
Source: West Valley City