Gag order in search for Wichita police chief cause for concern

OPINION AND COMMENT

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If the city of Wichita wants to inspire public confidence in its search for a new police chief, it’s going about it the wrong way.

We learned that finalists for the job were instructed not to do any interviews with local media and to refer all calls to the city manager’s office. More troubling than that, we learned from the finalists, not from the city.

We also learned that the members of the selection committee who narrowed down the choices to two had to sign nondisclosure agreements.

You may be thinking “so what?”

My answer would be this: we are not trying to interview these finalists for key government jobs for fun. We do this because you need to know as much as possible about the people who might be making important decisions that affect your life. Gag orders and NDAs don’t hurt the paper, they hurt you.

The town hall deliberately and shamelessly opposes your access to information. It is despicable and unacceptable.

In a written response to questions from The Eagle about the gag order, city spokeswoman Megan Lovely wrote:

“This is standard operating procedure for the City’s hiring process. The City and the consultant want to ensure that each candidate has equitable public coverage and access prior to the public forum. . . The City is committed to ensuring fair media opportunities for both candidates.

Lovely followed that up by suggesting that we check candidates’ “public LinkedIn (and) social media profiles” for information about them.

First of all, the suggestion that a newspaper should rely on social media for its information on finalists for a high-level government position would be laughable, if it were not so insulting to the intelligence of all people involved, including the finalists, our staff, and you, our readers.

Second, it is well beyond government overreach for City Hall and its consultants to think they can dictate what constitutes “equitable coverage” of government actions. See First Amendment, United States Constitution for reference.

And the fact that it’s “standard operating procedure” is both a lame excuse and an outright lie. If it’s a municipal policy, it’s the one they just invented.

When the city last hired a police chief, our reporter Tim Potter interviewed Gordon Ramsay, the chief of Duluth, Minnesota, who got the job, and Jeff Spivey, the deputy chief of Irving, Texas, who won’t. didn’t.

When City Manager Robert Layton was hired, then-City Hall reporter Brent Wistrom traveled to the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, Iowa to speak to him and to d other actors in the community, for the work he had done there.

I flew to Texas to report on another finalist, former Corpus Christi director George “Skip” Noe. Coincidentally, Wichita City Deputy Manager Scott Moore was a finalist for Noe’s old job, and I made an appearance on a local radio show to tell Corpus Christi what I knew of Moore.

It is as it should be.

The decision on a new police chief is too important to be left to confidential talks by a relative handful of local stakeholders and an organized public forum, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Botanica.

The city set aside half an hour before the forum for media availability, so television reporters could get sound bites for the evening news.

But that’s about all that’s going to be good for.

Thirty minutes, two finalists, three or four stations and the newspaper; do the math and you can see the depth of coverage that allows for it.

It’s not good enough.

Selecting a police chief is one of the most important decisions the city government will make all year, and potentially the most important.

It’s a department with deep-seated issues, some of which were killing citizens and others that involved racism, sexism and homophobia within the ranks. Just to name a few:

The brutal death of Andrew Finch, an innocent man killed by an officer responding to a fake emergency call. The officer who fired the shot was promoted after the department buried a ‘jump letter’ which revealed he said he intended to tell the Finch family to ‘s’ get over it” if he ran into them at his private security gig at their Walmart neighborhood.

Text messages between SWAT team members shared racist memes and texts, including messages supporting the Three Percenters, a self-proclaimed militia that advocates for the armed overthrow of the US government.

Cedric “CJ” Lofton, a 17-year-old foster child with mental breakdown, died in custody after being held down for 40 minutes by workers at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Admissions Assessment Center . It was later revealed that a Wichita police officer changed his answers on a form so that the teenager went to juvenile prison instead of the hospital he belonged to.

A police sergeant “slapped the ass” of a policewoman who was tied up during a training exercise. Police officials attempted to demote the sergeant, but were overruled by human resources director Chris Bezruki. A formal notice – the precursor to a lawsuit – by two current and a former deputy chief alleges that Bezruki has an all too comfortable relationship with the police union and retaliated against them for advocating for the sergeant’s demotion .

In each of these cases, City Hall tried to downplay and excuse gross misconduct until it was made public. Each case involved hiding critical information from the press, the public, and sometimes even other city officials.

The new police chief will inherit these problems and others, known and still unknown.

And he – both finalists are men – will work in a town hall that cares more about how things look than how they work.

You have the right and need to know how the finalists have dealt with similar issues in the past and how they would resolve Wichita’s issues.

Frankly, this process is already so tainted by the city’s stupid decisions that the best thing to do would be to start over. But it would look bad and therefore, it is highly unlikely.

Here’s our promise: we’ll do everything we can to paint an accurate picture of who these finalists are and what they did or didn’t do, no matter what walls City Hall tries to build around them.

It’s who we are. This is what we do.

This story was originally published October 6, 2022 3:23 p.m.

Opinion writer Dion Lefler provided award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business as a Wichita reporter for 23 years. Dion is from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other newspapers. He is the father of twins, director of lay servant ministries for the United Methodist Church, and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.

Amanda J. Marsh