San Diego is hiring a new police chief, but residents won’t know who is being considered or who is making the decision until after it’s been made.
The city’s chief operating officer Scott Chadwick sent an email to staff Tuesday laying out a hiring process for the San Diego Police Department’s new chief. Current Chief Shelley Zimmerman is retiring in March .
Chadwick described a selection process beginning with four public forums in September, followed by a confidential panel interviewing candidates in December and January.
“To help ensure the selection process is not compromised, the names of interview panelists will be shared after a selection has been made,” he wrote in the email.
Councilman David Alvarez and community members quickly said that wasn’t a sufficiently open process.
Zimmerman herself was hired without any community input. Faulconer chose her before he was even sworn  in, despite calls from other city leaders for a national search. More than three years later, it’s still his most decisive action as mayor.
Chadwick said his intent was to convey that the hiring decision would remain confidential on all sides to protect the integrity of the decision and the privacy of any candidates.
The city isn’t going to announce a shortlist of finalists ahead of the decision, he said, because candidates currently employed elsewhere deserve privacy. And it won’t announce who is on the hiring panel, he said, because he doesn’t want them to be lobbied by special interests or the candidates themselves.
“This was an attempt to be as open and transparent as possible,” Chadwick said. “This is the first time we have ever publicly laid out a hiring process.”
He said the four scheduled community forums, plus an online survey the city plans to push into the community aggressively, are the city’s attempt to “find out the characteristics that the community wants out of its next police chief,” which would then figure into the selection process.
Alvarez said the mayor’s process was certainly different and headed in the right direction, but still falls short on community involvement.
He and two other Council members filed a joint memo on their budget requests this year that called for a national search for a new police chief , including community forums in all nine council districts, plus the creation of a committee of community members that could be part of the hiring decision.
“We don’t know the backgrounds of the people on this secret panel,” Alvarez said. “We don’t know what their role will be, and we want to make sure the panel is representative of San Diego. Without knowing who they are, there’s no guarantee, and a lot of voices won’t be heard if the process continues this way.”
He agrees that the city needs to be sensitive about the privacy of candidates, but said there should be a way for community members to vet finalists.
“At this point, it’s entirely a secret process,” he said. “It’s not a public process at all.”
Tasha Williamson was among a group of community advocates who met with city officials, including Chadwick, Tuesday to share concerns about the hiring process.
“This is not a public process because a public process is done with the public, not to the public,” she said. “Having them confidential is just a farce.”
She also said the location of the forums and the fact that they’re starting so soon makes her doubt whether they’ll produce any meaningful public feedback.
“I already know the people who are going to show up to the community meetings, and they’re not the people who are targeted the most,” Williamson said.
She was also concerned that the community wouldn’t hear anything about the candidates prior to the final decision.
“We’re not asking for their Social Security cards or background checks of candidates before the committee. We do, however, want to know their names. How else could we understand their records and their qualifications?” Williamson said.
A coalition of community groups including the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, San Diego La Raza Bar Association and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties issued a statement  denouncing the process and held a press event in front of City Hall Wednesday morning expressing concerns.
Concerns over the transparency of processes for police chief hires have cropped up in other large cities in California and beyond.
Community advocates in Berkeley expressed anger  when that department made an internal hire with no national search or public process. Portland, Ore., officials faced criticism when the city declined to make finalists’ names public .
San Francisco, meanwhile, encouraged internal and external candidates from across the nation to apply when it searched for a new police chief in 2016, and made the names of those candidates public . Oakland not only held public forums before it hired a new police chief in 2016 – including forums in Spanish and Chinese – it appointed community members to the hiring committee  and actively sought input from young people.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the open government advocacy organization Californians Aware, said cities are better off finding a way to share as much information with the public as possible, and said there are ways to ensure interview panelists aren’t unduly influenced.
For instance, he said when the candidates have been dwindled to a list of three finalists, the panelists’ names could be announced, and then they could be sequestered for two or three days while they conduct interviews, much like a jury.
“Whatever efficiency and confidence you gain by keeping the panel members secret until after the fact is more than offset by the frustration the public will probably feel in having no idea of who is making the judgement until after the fact,” Francke said. “There’s more than one way of doing this, and I just think there’s a certain risk of the new chief not having everyone’s confidence because people didn’t know before the fact who was making the selection.”