Our Next Police Chief Redux


Since my last blog post concerning the selection process of our next police chief and my endorsement of one of the candidates, I have continued to talk with and learn from people who are involved in the process.  What I have learned concerns me, not so much for which of these two men will be selected, but rather for how the council and the city administration are interacting, and how the roles between those two groups are becoming blurred.

Astute readers already know that our council does not directly participate in the day-to-day running of the city like some of the councils in other cities in the region.  Although dedicated and hard working, our council members are only part-time representatives of the public, acting in an oversight role.  According to the design of the council/manager form of government, Sterling Heights has a professional management team that oversees the day-to-day operation of the city,  from purchasing to fleet operations, budget preparation to tax policy creation, legal affairs, promotion of the city to prospective residents, and yes, personnel decisions.  The guy who makes all of the big decisions, with the approval of council, is largely autonomous, and he has proven himself to be capable and competent to handle the monumental task of running this city for many years now.  His name is Mark Vanderpool, and he is the City Manager.

When a director-level vacancy, such as the current one for police chief, becomes open, here is the administration’s role:  The administration advertises the vacancy  in accordance with the law and best practices.  The administration again uses industry best practices to determine the criteria for hiring someone to fill the role.  The administration vets the candidates who arise, and once they have an acceptable group of candidates, the process of testing and interviewing those candidates begins.  After this process takes place, the results are studied and discussed by the City Manager and his trusted staff.  The city attorney is involved — there are a bevy of legal considerations to be taken — as well as several top-level directors.   All of this is done with the knowledge that the entire process has to be legally and ethically defensible.

Once the process is complete, the City Manager decides who he wants to hire for the job, and he passes his recommendation along to council for final approval.

The council’s role is to act as the representatives of the people who are ultimately in charge of the way the city gets run: you and me, the registered voters.  We entrust them to provide oversight to ensure that the City Manager conducted a thorough vetting and interview process.  Council acts as a check to ensure that no impropriety enters into the City Manager’s decision.  They determine, essentially, whether or not they have confidence that the City Manager is doing his job.  Their vote of final approval on a candidate is just exactly that: the culmination of the City Manager’s task, the final seal of approval and the vote of confidence that he has done his job well.

You will notice that the council members are not directly involved in the publicizing of the vacancy, the selection of the candidates, nor devising the criteria, nor testing the candidates, nor the evaluation of the results.  They are not consulted on the legalities in the process, nor are they relied upon to know the industry best practices for hiring a police chief.

This is for a reason: it isn’t their job to know or do these things.  They just make sure the guy we hired to know and do those things actually does and has.  This is the essence of the council/manager form of government, and there are clearly delineated roles.  There are different specialties involved.  There are things the council does, and things the city manager does.  Although they work closely together and exchange ideas, and although the city manager ultimately serves at the pleasure of council, he is allowed to do his job and make the vast majority of the decisions in how the city is run.

Except when he’s not.  Like in this case.

In this case, Mr. Vanderpool went through the process explained above.  He vetted his candidates, tested them, interviewed them, determined their sufficiency, ensured the process was legal, ethical and defensible, and then made his selection of one of the top candidates: Captain John Berg.

That’s his selection, and it is his job to make that selection.  It is not council’s.

Unfortunately, Mr. Vanderpool apparently made a statement in one of his memoranda to council that said something to the effect of “both of these men would make an excellent police chief.”  And this is where the trouble started.

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I said at the beginning that I’m not so much concerned about which of these two men are selected.

Why am I not concerned about which man becomes police chief?  It’s simple: they’re both highly qualified.  Sterling Heights’ Police Department is a high-performing department, known as being a department new officers from across Michigan aspire to work for one day.  The people who rise to the top of such an organization don’t get there by accident.  The process of going from a regular patrol officer to a sergeant is rigorous, and it just keeps getting tougher from there.  You can be confident that regardless of whether Captain Berg or Captain Dwojakowski gets the nod for the top post, the department will be in good hands.  These guys are both professionals, they are both very capable, and they would both serve us well.  That is my opinion of them.

I can afford to have an opinion about these men, and which one I like better for the job: I’m not responsible for hiring one of them, or making sure it is done properly.  I am a blogger, not a City Manager or a City Council Member.  I have that latitude.

The credit for the fact that either one would serve us well, of course, goes largely to Captain Berg and Captain Dwojakowski.  They have both worked very hard to develop themselves into the kind of people you would seriously consider to become the police chief of the third largest city in the state.  That is no small thing.  It’s the sort of thing that keeps men up at night,  studying on their own time, pursuing a path of continuous self-improvement.

But the credit for that also goes to Mark Vanderpool.  He has established the expectation of high performance in our police department, and he has cultivated that department’s organizational structure to enable it to produce high quality people, through appropriate training, judicious promotions, proper budgeting, and careful management of the concerns that occasionally arise, such as the police time card scandal of several years ago.  This also is no small thing.  It requires serious thought, a great deal of effort, finesse, experience, patience and discretion.  There are nights that the lights burn very late in Mark Vanderpool’s office.  I’ve seen it for myself.

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So when Mark Vanderpool makes a decision about who should become the next police chief, it isn’t a decision that is made lightly.  There is a very formal process.  There is input from highly trained and heavily experienced professionals.  There are test scores, and there are weights applied to those test scores.  There are considerations made of past experiences with the candidates.  There are considerations made about where the candidates are in their careers.  Personalities are evaluated, and competence is judged. And finally, to put the icing on the cake, there is a final vote by the elected representatives of the people that certifies that this decision was not only made, it was made well, for defensible reasons, by a competent team that has the right manager in charge.

Notice I said “certifies the decision” — not decides.

You would think that council would acknowledge everything that has gone into this process, but unfortunately, a majority of them at this time have decided instead that they will overrule Mr. Vanderpool’s carefully considered, months-long decision process.

They’ve decided to do so because they feel that they have a clearer idea of which of these two men will perform better in the job than Mr. Vanderpool does.  They’ve decided to do so because they have, in my view, unwisely allowed politics to enter into what should remain an unpolitically charged hiring process.  And by doing so, they are undermining Mark Vanderpool.  They are saying, in not so many words, that they are the decision makers, and that while Mr. Vanderpool’s process seemed, well, fairly rigorous and thorough, they just don’t agree with his decision, and since he said the two top candidates were both good guys, well, then that means we get to pick whoever we like, right?

Except that, no, that’s not right.  That’s not right at all.

If we’re going to turn the process of hiring the police chief into a popularity contest, then whoever gets the most votes gets the job.  Kind of like a politician, except, well, not.

The integrity of the process depends in no small part on there in fact actually being a process that is followed, rigorously, every time.  If you take a hiring process and turn it into a popularity contest, it no longer matches the description of a rigorous, repeatable process.

The process is there for a reason that goes beyond who will become the Chief of Police.  The process is designed to help foster employee competence and encourage men and women working for the city to work hard and become good candidates for promotion at all levels.  Police departments, perhaps more than any other kind of department, are hierarchical.  The people at the bottom of the organization look up to the people at the top.  It is necessary when you give men and women guns, badges and fast cars and tell them to go out and use their discretion yet still apply the law to protect the city that they can look up to the top of the organization and know that those people got there for a damn good reason.  Those people at the top must command the respect of the rank and file.  Otherwise, the rank and file is operating in a vacuum.  You don’t want people with guns and badges operating in a vacuum.

This is tough stuff to grasp.  It is not necessarily intuitive.  It requires insight into how to motivate groups of people.  It requires truly understanding why things are done a certain way.  In order for it to work, it takes a recognition of the different roles involved, and why there are different roles.  It requires a certain respect for our form of government, and in particular the council/manager form of government, and why it is different than other forms.

Members of council, all of them pretty good people in my estimation, are human and subject to losing sight of these things from time to time.  I believe that is what has happened in this case.

If I was Mark Vanderpool and my candidate was rejected, I would take that as a vote of no confidence, and I would go find another city to run.  It wouldn’t take me long to do so, either.  I would not allow myself to settle for only being deemed competent enough when the politicians didn’t feel like doing my job for me.  Why?  Because if I’m Mark Vanderpool, I’m pretty good at what I do, and there are a lot of cities that would pay me very well to move there and run their organization.

If I was a police sergeant hoping to move up in the ranks and Mark Vanderpool’s candidate was rejected for political reasons, I would stop studying and start schmoozing council members, for that would obviously be the fastest way to advance my career.  All I would need would be to get four council members to back me, and it wouldn’t matter how much work the other guy did to make himself a good choice for the role.  And the rank and file — you know, the men and women with the guns, badges, fast cars, and the expectation placed upon them that they use their discretion in applying the law and protecting the city — would see that the people at the top got there by schmoozing, instead of by being excellent cops at the very top of their field.

And if I was a voter — and whatd’yaknow, I am — and I found out that we were paying Mark Vanderpool and his team big bucks to make tough personnel decisions only to have those decisions overridden by people who think they know better based on their casual assessment of the candidates personalities, well, I would be pretty upset by that.  Nix that, will be pretty upset by it.  I would start wondering why our carefully constructed culture of excellence that has produced such high-performing people in the past was so disposable.  And I would start wondering if the council really had the best interest of the residents at heart.

City Counselors, please think carefully.  This is important.  You can’t afford to not get this right.  And if you think this is about how one or the other candidates makes you feel, you have missed the point.  You are charged with certifying that Mark Vanderpool has done his job, not second-guessing him.  It is no exaggeration that a hell of a lot more than who becomes the next police chief is hanging in the balance here.  This truly is a crossroads moment.  This determines the direction of a city.

Please get it right.

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Posted on April 13, 2016, in Issues and views. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well reasoned and intelligent discourse. The City Council should consider this carefully. I too agree that it puts the city at a crossroad in maintaining excellence. I echo the comment, “please get it right”.

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