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In hiring new chief, BART Police has a chance to start again

on December 18, 2009

BART convened a public forum Thursday seeking feedback from riders regarding the next BART police chief. The current head of the force, Gary Gee, announced in August that he would step down at the end of 2009, after a nine-year tenure. BART’s tentative selection timeline calls for the next chief to start in April 2010.

Thursday’s event at Oakland’s Joseph P. Bort MetroCenter Auditorium was lightly attended, with ten public speakers and two board members, Tom Radulovich and Carol Ward Allen, present. Ward Allen appealed to the public’s engagement and creativity as the selection process began.

“We want you to look forward rather than backward,” she said. “What we’re looking for is a new chief with new ideas, and we certainly ask you to think in that context.”

The forum comes after a tough year for BART’s police department. The fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by BART Officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day shocked and angered Bay Area citizens, leading to multiple calls for reforms and for the resignation of Gee and General Manager Dorothy Dugger. The question of whether a BART police officer used excessive force in arresting an unruly passenger at the West Oakland Station on November 21 sparked renewed public calls for transparency and better training inside the department.

BART officials and observers say Chief Gee’s departure gives BART’s leadership an opportunity to start again, potentially implementing reforms and repairing the trust between the agency’s 206 officers and the more than 330,000 riders who use the system on an average weekday.

“I think it’s a dual challenge,” said Robert Wasserman, who led the Oakland Police Department’s recent search for a chief and helped recruit Anthony Batts for the job. “The chief has to capture the imagination of the members of the department and has to capture the imagination of the community.”

To locate and sift through potential candidates, BART has hired Bob Murray & Associates, a Northern California-based executive search firm with extensive national experience recruiting new leaders for police departments. Thursday’s forum was the beginning of the four- to six-month search process that BART officials say they hoped would involve all of the future chief’s constituencies.

The posting for BART police is publicly available and, according to the draft timeline, a review process will start by February. Murray said he did not have exact numbers on how many people had applied, but expected applications to pick up after the holiday season. The timeline includes two rounds of interviews in March, with a new chief taking charge of the department by April.

The BART board members at Thursday’s forum reiterated that public comment was needed from the beginning of the process. “This is the first step,” Radulovich said. “Before we get involved in the search, we need to, as best we can, reach out to the community and have a conversation, asking ‘What are the qualifications we are looking for in the next chief?’”

To begin that public engagement, BART released an online survey on December 3, inviting the public to rate the qualities and experience they want in the incoming leader. The survey remains open until January 7, 2010.

BART Chief Spokesman Linton Johnson said the agency had received 600 electronic responses so far, and that these data and comments from Thursday’s forum would be used as baseline criteria to identify qualified candidates.

“When we start narrowing the candidates down, we are then starting from a group of folks who already meet the qualities that the community wants,” he said.

Participants in Thursday’s forum highlighted the need for the next chief to understand the Bay Area’s diversity and varied constituents. Oakland spiritual leader, Dr. A. Aurea Lewis, representing the California Council of Churches, said she hoped the next chief recognized that he or she was coming to a “complex city” and should train his officers accordingly.

“We are trans-modal; we are cosmopolitan,” Lewis said. “We have all kinds of little cities within the city of Oakland. We are looking for a chief who understands diversity, compassion and empathy, and will train his staff to understand that they are working in a diverse environment.”

Adding to the complexity, the next BART police chief will lead a department under pressure from low morale and a lack of public confidence. Jesse Sekhon, president of the BART Police Officers Association, said the next chief will need to lead by example, raising morale and reemphasizing tactical and diversity training.

“You can’t be satisfied with just the minimum requirements,” Sekhon said in an interview earlier this week. “You have to go above and beyond. You have to invest in your police department and that investment will reap returns later on in avoiding events like [the Grant killing on] January 1.”

Bob Wasserman argued that training can only take a force so far and that transparency and outreach to the public will be key in preserving relationships strained by crisis.

“In policing, things will always go wrong,” Wasserman said. “What counts is a chief’s ability to address things that happen in a way that inspires the confidence of the community. That is best shown by the experience the chief has had and what he has done in similar situations.”

The most transformative chiefs, Wasserman added, are those that can cultivate talent for the long term.

“One of the characteristics of success is their ability to develop a lot of people internally who can become chief when they leave,” he said.

BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger said the public’s role was weighted toward the beginning of the selection process, but declined to give specifics as to where the public’s direct participation would come next. She reminded the audience that the online survey remained open and that BART’s Police Department Review Committee would continue to serve as a public forum for discussion.

“We are continuing to refine the opportunities for public input into the end of this process when we are reviewing final candidates,” she said.

Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.

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