An inside job

Even with five officers convicted for various crimes over the past two years, Boulder city officials avoided seeking an external candidate when it came time to hire a new police chief

Boulder Police Department

On Monday, Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam named Deputy Police Chief Greg Testa the city’s new chief of police. Testa had served as interim chief since April 1 when Mark Beckner retired after 16 years as the city’s lead officer.

City officials have said that Testa’s 27-year career with the Boulder police gives him an intimate understanding of not only the police force, but community values as well. However, the past two years have given rise to a spate of egregious behavior among Boulder’s law enforcement, from officers with multiple DUIs to attempted murder to the now infamous killing of the Mapleton elk. Even former Chief Beckner was criticized early this year for neglecting to inform city residents that surveillance cameras had been installed on the municipal campus between the municipal building and the public library on Arapahoe Avenue.

While city officials told Boulder Weekly they believe that the actions of a few “bad actors” shouldn’t result in punishment for the entire police force by looking outside the department for a new chief, an external candidate could have provided new perspectives that avoid perpetuating a police culture that may be turning a blind eye to wayward behavior and misuse of power.

For background, this is the second consecutive time that Boulder has promoted an internal officer to police chief. Former Chief Beckner spent 20 years with the Boulder Police Department before being named chief in 1998 after Tom Koby stepped down amid sharp criticism for the way the Boulder PD was handling the investi gation into the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. At that time, acting City Manager Dave Rhodes made the decision to promote a new police chief from within the department’s ranks.

Beckner, the lead on the Ramsey investigation, was one of only four candidates considered as a replacement for Koby, who had served as chief for seven years. In contrast, Koby was hired from a pool of 170 candidates from around the country. Reports at the time say that some of Beckner’s fellow officers refused to discuss his promotion with reporters, suggesting that not everyone in the department agreed with the internal hire.

As with any choice, there are pros and cons associated with internal and external recruiting, but human resource management research shows that external hires can provide new ideas and fresh perspectives, initiate a turnaround, avoid internal politics and increase diversity.

But Boulder city officials seem to believe it’s more important for the new chief to know the community than to bring fresh ideas to a department that seems fraught with misconduct.

The hiring process for the police chief is handled by the city manager, Jane Brautigam. In March, when Testa was slated to be the city’s interim chief, Brautigam said the search would be internal, and the city again selected four candidates to choose from.

“Brautigam said it was essential that Boulder’s next police chief understand this community’s values, maintain strong department leadership, and partner with residents to address public safety,” said a City of Boulder press release Monday naming Testa as top cop. “Chief Testa is well prepared to foster these values and commitment to the community.”

While Brautigam didn’t personally return BW’s calls, city spokesperson Sarah Huntley responded on Brautigam’s behalf.

“It was the city manager’s feeling that we have a very strong police department with a tradition of training future leaders,” says Huntley. “In addition to the leadership of Mark Beckner, Deputy Chief Dave Hayes was just made the Louisville police chief. So we feel like we have people in-house that are well prepared.”

When asked if the number of incidents of misconduct over the past two years might suggest cultural problems within the department that could benefit from the perspective of a chief from outside the city, Huntley said she understood that perspective.

“But I think given the quality of the four candidates that we have, I think the city manager feels very comfortable with her decision,” says Huntley.

Huntley adds that in a department of this size — a total of 282 personnel in Boulder’s police department — it’s not unusual to have problems from time to time with individuals and their judgment.

Since April 2012, five officers from Boulder’s police department have been convicted of crimes: Eric Shunglik Lee plead guilty in federal court to possessing an unregistered firearm; Christian McCracken was sentenced to 90 days in jail and a decade of intensive supervised probation for stalking his ex-girlfriend and plotting to kill her new boyfriend; Scott Morris had been pulled over more than 40 times before he was finally pulled over for speeding and arrested for driving drunk while having a loaded hand gun within his reach; Elizabeth Ward was charged with a DUI in May 2013; and most recently, Sam Carter was convicted on nine counts, including four felonies, for the shooting of the Mapleton elk.

Allegations of “serious misconduct,” such as the high profile elk killing or incidents involving officers driving drunk, are subject to “Class 1 Professional Standards Investigations” by the city’s police department. For comparison, class 2 reviews can involve on-duty traffic accidents and speeding. But annual professional standards reports show that class 2 reviews can also include incidents such as misplacing a firearm, neglecting to appropriately sign out a weapon, accidentally discharging a weapon or speaking disrespectfully to a citizen.

A “Professional Standards Review Panel,” comprised of 12 members — six police department members and six volunteer community members — reviews class 1 complaints. In a recent email exchange on Boulder’s City Council Hotline (beginning on June 5), then-Interim Chief Testa explained, “Panel members review administrative investigations in addition to a review by the subject employee’s supervisory chain of command. During the panel’s review, they make written recommendations on whether the investigation was conducted fairly, completely, and reported accurately. They also make a recommendation on disposition based on the material contained in the case file.”

Testa clarified that panel decisions are advisory only, as are recommendations made by supervisors, leaving the ultimate decision to the police chief. Incidents involving criminal behavior will undergo criminal investigations and, if appropriate, go to trial.

According to annual reports from the Boulder Police Department, in 2011 there were four class 1 investigations and 23 class 2 reviews. In 2012 there were eight class 1 investigations and 24 class 2 reviews. In the recent hotline email exchange, Testa told City Council members that the panel met 13 times in 2013 and will meet in the “next several weeks to review one investigation.”

A panel of people from the police department and the city manager’s office interview candidates for available community positions on the professional standards review panel. The city manager makes the final selection.

The chief of police, with input from the Boulder Police Officers Association and Boulder Municipal Employees Association, selects the department panel members. Department representation on the panel consists of three commissioned officers, one commissioned sergeant and two BMEA employees.

Judd Golden, a Boulder-based lawyer and former long-time chair of Boulder County’s American Civil Liberties Union, says the current method for appointing community members means that all of the panel members are essentially appointed by the police.

“At the minimum those [community] panel members should be appointed by an entity that’s not the police force, whether that’s the city council or one of the [other city] boards,” says Golden.

While Barry Satlow, the current chair of Boulder County’s ACLU chapter, says that the ACLU has no opinion on the city manager’s decision to keep the search for a new police chief internal, he did say that the group believes that the city council should appoint the citizen member of the professional standards review panel just as they do for dozens of other city boards. Satlow says Boulder County’s ACLU is in the beginning stages of analyzing and reporting on similar professional review panels in other municipalities to see how they operate.

Boulder City Council member Sam Weaver says that he thinks, “in principle there could be a council appointment” for community members on the review panel, but as a new member of council he wants to gather information first to better understand the process.

As for his thoughts on the decision to hire a new chief from an internal pool, Weaver says from his understanding, “there were four excellent commanders in the force who are qualified to be chief.”

“From my perspective, you shouldn’t punish people by going out side of the department for hire, it’s to have oversight of the department that involves citizens and officers themselves that keeps the culture strong,” says Weaver.

Weaver adds that he thought the review panel was more important to maintaining an ethical culture within the police department than whether the police chief is hired internally or externally.

“It’s not about the chief, per se, but about oversight. That’s my perspective. Culturally, we need to make sure we have the right tools in place to manage the department,” says Weaver.

Council member Mary Young says that no member of council expressed any concern about the decision to hire internally.

“There’s a real strong culture of succession planning within the police department. Chief Beckner especially was a meticulous planner and so we’re certain he, throughout his planning, came up with some good candidates,” says Young.

Young says all misconduct by Boulder police officers has been investigated by the professional standards review panel and showed no evidence of “any systemic problem.”

Golden disagrees. 

“So it seems as though, in reviewing those cases, that much of what those people were engaged in weren’t isolated instances, but seemed to be occurring in a recurring fashion, especially the evidence that came forth during the elk case shows that a lot of misconducts were just sort of winked at and it was a circle-thewagons, protect-our-own attitude until things got so extreme that it became public,” Golden says.

He adds that while the choice to hire internally or externally really depends on the situation, the city council and city manager have “glossed over” the instances of misconduct within the department.

“The concern I think the public should rightfully have is: Is there a culture within people in the department that protects their own and winks and nods at anything that isn’t a profound deviation from good conduct? Will [these candidates] support a change in that culture? Again, just putting people on trial and getting them convicted and having them quit when they get caught, that’s good. But what about all those others who are going about their ways? I’m not sure if they are getting any different message from their peers.”

Council members Young and Weaver, as well as Boulder spokesperson Huntley all say they are unaware of any citizen concern about the decision to hire a new chief internally.

“We haven’t gotten any emails on the matter at all. Not one,” says Young.

Golden says a lack of public complaint doesn’t matter.

“That is not at all how government should operate. As someone who has been involved in this issue and with the ACLU in the past, public outcry is not how governance should work,” Golden says. “The police chief and such, that’s all internally done. The public doesn’t get to vote on any of these people. So the idea of asking for an outcry, what do they want? Do they want five emails, or 10 people to show up at City Council and complain about it? Do we need to have some awful thing happen to motivate this? That’s exactly the wrong way to make good public policy.”