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January 25, 2006

 

Chief administrative officer David Singleton, its second-ranking official, categorically denied that the Coons administration is attempting to play politics with the county police force.

Before County Council enacted an ordinance removing the police chief position from the merit system and giving the county executive near-absolute power to hire or fire its occupant, Singleton told Council's public safety committee that there is no intention to do the same with any other positions in the Police Department. The department also includes the paramedics and 9-1-1 emergency services.

Under questioning, however, he did acknowledge that the administration does intend to ask the state General Assembly to exempt the county police chief from provisions of the Police Chiefs Bill of Rights. The main effect of that would be to remove from the dismissal process the option to demand a hearing before County Council.

Singleton noted that both executive appointment authority and the exemption exist for the Wilmington police chief and the superintendent of state police.

Semantically speaking, he said, the appointment process called for in the new ordinance is more accurately 'an executive appointment' and not a 'political appointment' as it has been referred to in some quarters. The only limitation is that County Council has to confirm any appointment.

He said County Executive Christopher Coons is committed to hire a qualified professional to fill the existing police chief vacancy. Public safety director Guy Sapp backed that up with a detailed description of a new process which will use police officers and officials from outside the state to examine the credentials not only of applicants to be police chief but also of officers seeking promotion..

In other matters related to county police, the committee was told:

• The previously promised consultant study of the size, organization and deployment of the force is underway.

• The county intends to provide some police support to the city of Wilmington this summer, but not to the extent that city officials have requested nor what was provided last year.

The police chief ordinance was enacted at Council's plenary session on Jan. 24 by a 10-to-2 vote with a minimum of discussion. However, it came in for extensive discussion beforehand at the public safety committee meeting. Council committee meetings are open to the public, but are held in the afternoon and attended by considerably fewer people than turn out for the evening sessions.

Councilman William Bell, who ended up casting one of the negative votes, objected to the ordinance on the grounds that it "denies [job] protection to someone who has earned the right to serve as colonel of our police department."

Inclusion of a provision which gives a fired chief the option of reverting to former rank, primarily in order to gather the 20 years of service required for a full pension, did not mollify Bell. He questioned how effective a demoted former chief would be as a command officer.

When the measure and two companion resolutions reached the floor, Bell attempted but failed to amend the one pertaining to a new job description to require that only officers holding the rank of captain, major or lieutenant colonel be eligible for the top position. The requirement that was approved includes senior lieutenants among the eligibles.

A county police lieutenant becomes a senior lieutenant after four years at that rank. The designation carries slightly higher pay, but no additional duties or authority. Bell argued that no lieutenant has sufficient experience with higher command to qualify to be chief.

Bell is chairman of the public safety committee and a retired former head of the 9-1-1 emergency service.

He was joined in opposing the ordinance and supporting the amendment by William Tansey who argued at the committee meeting against removal of the chief from the merit system. He said he didn't understand why a police chief had to be in agreement with the philosophies of the county executive when "the job is to enforce the law and stop crime."

Council president Paul Clark said the ordinance which went before Council was crafted during an extended series of previously unpublicized meetings attended by some Council members with administration and police officials. Sapp said it had the concurrence of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that is the labor union representing county officers.

Clark said the main reason for the ordinance was to assure "the ability of the county executive to work with the chief of police."

Over the years, the position has vacillated between being under the merit system and not. Most recent change was in 2003 when the former administration of County Executive Thomas Gordon reached down into the ranks to promote David McAllister, then a lieutenant, to chief. Before later creation of the public safety director position, the police chief also was general manager of the department. Gordon also had the General Assembly bring the general managers of other departments, whom he had appointed, into the system.

When Coons took office last year, he had the Assembly reverse that for the civilian departments, but not the police chief.

Tansy said it was his impression that hiring Sapp as director of public safety provided a general manager who served 'at the pleasure of the executive' and put the police department onto the same footing as other departments. The police chief reports to the director of public safety.

In the wake of an audit and an internal police investigation into a fund to finance officers' off-duty assignments for private organizations, McAllister resigned. The terms under which he did so have never been fully revealed.

Scott McLaren currently is serving as acting chief.

In addition to the chief's position being open to application from county command officers, Sapp said an executive search firm will seek outside candidates. When the field is appropriately narrowed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police will provide 'assessors' to evaluate the candidates and submit recommendations to Coons for final action.

That process, he said, will take two to three months and cost approximately $20,000.

Councilman George Smiley said he would prefer that preference be given to a candidate who already is a county officer. "It would be more beneficial to the department and the citizens of New Castle County to have someone with that knowledge and experience," he said.

The promotion process, Sapp explained, will be similar in that applicants will be screened by panels of police officers and officials from jurisdictions within driving range of northern Delaware after taking the standard written test. It has become an accepted practice for departments around the nation to exchange personnel evaluators.

To avoid possibility of bias or discrimination, he said everyone who seeks promotion would go through the entire process and their final standing on resulting promotion lists will be determined by a composite score based on how they do during each of its components.

He said there are 34 sergeants who could apply for promotion to lieutenant and as many as 160 officers who might want sergeant's stripes.

The consultant study by Police Executive Research Firm, he said, has been divided into two phases. The first, now underway at a cost of $63,850, is a staff analysis. A decision has not yet been made whether to proceed to the second phase, an organizational review. If that is done, it will cost an additional $33,000.

In part, the study will review a 1999 report which pointed out "some shortcomings" in the force and cover some of the same ground it did, Sapp said. That report was never made pubic and, apparently, none of its recommendations were ever implemented.

Councilman Jea Street, vice chairman of the public safety committee, said he has read the report and that it contains allegations of bias and lack of ethnic and gender diversity on the force. "That [was not] addressed in 1999 and has not been since," he said.

McLaren told the committee that the county force does not have sufficient manpower to provide all the assistance Wilmington wants. Specifically, he is not able to agree to an extended commitment of 12 officers for a 30-day period.

Single-day assignment of county officers to duty augmenting the city force will be possible, he said.

And, he added, "we will support Wilmington on a moment's notice in the event of an emergency."

Last summer, he explained, officers sent into the city were drawn from those with inside assignments. There was no reduction in normal patrols of the rest of the county. This year, there are fewer county officers available because of attrition, military duty, vacations and the like. A new recruit class will not put additional officers onto the force until late in the year.

Councilman Joseph Reda suggested that the city could augment its police force if it did such things as drop its community-access television activity. "That's $800,000 [saved], which is eight more officers just there," he said.

© 2006. All rights reserved.

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