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September 12, 2006

 

Confirmation of Rick Gregory to be chief of the New Castle County police force appears likely but not perfunctory after his appointment drew both strong endorsement and objection at a hearing before County Council's public safety committee.

Joe Blackburn, one of the representatives of the International Association of Chiefs of Police which screened finalist candidates, testified that Gregory "was by far the top candidate" when judged by a series of command exercises administered objectively.

By so saying, he endorsed an introductory remark at the committee meeting on Sept. 11 by chief administrative officer Jeff Bullock, who referred to Gregory as "one of the very best candidates for chief available in the United States."

At a recent meeting of officers of areawide 'umbrella' civic associations, County Executive Christopher Coons described Gregory as "head and shoulders above" others brought forward by a national search.

However, Joseph Lavelle, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge which serves as the union for county police through the rank of senior lieutenant, told the public safety committee that an outsider was not the best choice to lead what Lavelle described as an "already demoralized" force.

"I'm not so sure a state police officer from Florida is going to solve these problems," he said. "Our preference was that a candidate from within the police department be selected."

Contrary to usual practice when interviewing appointees for various positions in county government that are subject to Council approval, the 10 Council members who attended the committee meeting avoided giving any indication of their leanings. Like all standing committees, the public safety committee is comprised of all 13 members of Council.

Only four -- committee chairman William Bell, Council president Paul Clark, John Cartier and Robert Weiner -- participated in the discussion. Timothy Sheldon and William Tansey, who had attended another committee meeting earlier in the afternoon, did not attend the public safety meeting. Jea Street was absent from both committee meetings.

Since his selection by Coons, Gregory is said to have met privately with all or most members of Council.

A vote on whether to confirm him is on the agenda for Council's plenary session on Sept. 12.

Asked by Bell to respond to Lavelle's testimony, Gregory said that "morale is something that changes very quickly."

He said he favors a 'hands-on' management style. "I'm not one you'll find surrounded by people and sitting behind a desk," he said. "I don't believe in coming into an organization ... and turning it upside down."

He added that his "first goal [will be] to get as much 'input' as possible not only from senior officers but [also] from the rank and file of the organization."

County attorney Gregg Wilson said that, while the police chief serves at the pleasure of the county executive, he also is protected from arbitrary dismissal by the state law referred to as the police chiefs' bill of rights.

Lavelle remarked that former chief David McAllister's job also was covered by the county's civil service merit system, "but he (Coons) found a way to get around that."

While the union official did not specifically refer to him by name, it is generally known that there has been strong support within the county force for Scott McLaren, who has been serving as acting chief since McAllister agreed to resign.

 McAllister had been suspended during an investigation into management of the former arrangement for officers' off-duty assignments. He was not accused of any wrongdoing. McAllister was considered to be a protégé of former County Executive Tom Gordon, Coons's predecessor in that office.

Coincidently, Council on Sept. 12 also will vote on a measure to provide additional money for the fund from which officers who take voluntary off-duty assignments are compensated. Financial officer Michael Strine said that commercial and nonprofit organizations which contract for such services now pay $56 an hour, up from $53.50 last fiscal year. The fee would have to be about $10 higher in order to fully compensate the county for providing the service, he said, but "we want to be competitive with city (Wilmington) and state [police] and be fair to nonprofits."

Gregory, who is deputy director for field operations with the Florida Highway Patrol, said that agency's mission has changed significantly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, moving it from predominantly a traffic-law enforcement agency to a full-service police department. Most policing in Florida, he said, is done by municipal and county forces and sheriffs.

"Cops are cops and I think we're all in it for the same thing -- to make our communities safer," he said.

Clark asked why he was interested in relocating to Delaware. "I don't have a love and a burning desire to remain in Florida. We've been two years dodging torturous hurricanes," he replied. Gregory is a native of Utah but has lived in Florida since childhood. His wife is a native Floridian.

© 2006. All rights reserved.

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