web analytics
Your Independent Alternative!

Police Chiefs Turning in Badges

When Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington announced he would resign at the end of the year, his decision wasn't entirely a surprise.

Both candidates for mayor in this week's runoff election had vowed to overhaul the police department, saying high-profile crimes in the city jeopardized public safety.

Pennington's departure, announced last week after seven years at the helm, has significance beyond Atlanta's borders: It is the latest in an exodus of at least half a dozen big-city police chiefs this year. Some of the nation's best-known local law enforcement figures have announced their retirements and resignations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Dallas and Seattle. Their exits signal that an important era in U.S. policing is nearing an end, some analysts say.

Joe McNamara, a criminal justice research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, says some of the departing chiefs - including Los Angeles' William Bratton, who left in October - helped "bring policing out of the dark ages."

"They helped bring crime down in their cities by identifying (crime-ridden areas) through the use of computer analysis," McNamara says. "It was a big change when you consider that changing the way a police department does business is like trying to turn an ocean liner with a toothpick."

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union, describes Bratton and former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowski - who left in March to become the White House drug czar - as "pacesetters" in precarious jobs. "A lot of this is cyclical," Pasco says. "Because many of these people serve at the pleasure of the local political leadership, political change means some of them have to leave."

Safety challenges

The personnel changes happen at a critical time in local policing, says Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska.

He says cities are confronting public-safety challenges, from taking a larger role in the national counterterrorism strategy and absorbing deep budget cuts to reintegrating veterans returning to the ranks from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These are real worrisome issues," Walker says.

Bratton, who works for an international security firm, says he can't recall another time when so many big-city chiefs left in roughly the same period. "It's a time of great transition," he says.

The chiefs who are leaving extended their tenure beyond the average of about 3 years, says Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina. They forged career paths through multiple major cities.

Before arriving in Los Angeles in 2002, Bratton served as police commissioner in New York City and Boston. In New York, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bratton helped cut violent crime to historic lows.

Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who announced his resignation last month, was Bratton's top assistant in New York and then headed the police departments in Philadelphia and Miami. When he arrived in Miami in 2003, he inherited a department scarred by incidents of police abuse. He responded by restricting when officers could fire their weapons.

McNamara says both chiefs established national reputations as public-safety problem solvers.

Bratton says the big-city chiefs leaving this year shared a philosophy that effective policing could reduce crime, if officers "were appropriately led, had the appropriate resources and were appropriately supported," he says. "Technology then became increasingly important as an enabler of that philosophy."

Problems in office

Many of the high-profile chiefs have hit some bumps during their relatively long tenures.

Both Timoney and Pennington have clashed with police unions. Timoney acknowledged two years ago that his free use of a sport-utility vehicle from a local car dealer created a "perception" problem. He later paid for the SUV.

Pennington was accused by his union of being away from the city during some of Atlanta's highest-profile crimes, including the fatal shooting in 2006 of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. She was killed by police involved in a botched drug raid. Last week, Pennington apologized for the incident.

Timoney announced his retirement after the election of Mayor Tomás Regalado, who had vowed to bring new leadership to the department, citing morale problems in the ranks.

Timoney, whom Esquire once dubbed "America's Best Cop," says he is leaving the department having "fulfilled my mission."

"It would be arrogant to say that you can't be replaced," says Timoney, who won't rule out another law enforcement job.

"You know, they don't make cops like they used to," the chief jokes, quickly adding that some might say, "Thank God for that."

Comments are closed.