Should the city look beyond its borders for its next top cop?

Mayor Andy Ginther is betting that it’s finally the right time for an idea that’s been kicking around City Hall for at least a decade. When Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs announced her retirement in December, Ginther seized the opportunity to try something new: open up the search for her replacement to candidates outside the city. “The people of Columbus deserve the best and the brightest, whether he or she may be here within the division of police or someplace else,” Ginther says.

To outsiders, that idea might seem fairly tame. After all, most folks expect businesses and public entities to conduct broad national searches for top executives. But City Hall isn’t most places, and the powerful Columbus police union has long fought to keep top-cop candidates to internal applicants only, a practice that dates to at least the early 1970s, according to the Columbus Civil Service Commission. To even get this far, Ginther needed an arbitrator to rule in his favor after the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9 claimed the change was a contract violation.

Those delicate politics have vexed previous city leaders, including Ginther’s predecessor, Mike Coleman. Twice, he stuck with the status quo rather than shake things up—first in 2009 because he didn’t want to risk conflict with the police union during a campaign to increase the city income tax, and again in 2012 when he believed Jacobs, who was unpopular with the union, would be a reformer.

Under Ginther, however, the politics are different. First, Jacobs hasn’t been the reformer that Coleman hoped she would be, and a series of police-involved deaths and violent incidents have put the division at the center of public controversy in recent years, resulting in louder calls for a new direction. Second, Ginther has been at odds with the police union from the start. Though the FOP backed him when he was on Columbus City Council, the union endorsed his 2015 mayoral opponent, former Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott. It hasn’t gotten better since, with the FOP even slapping Ginther with a no-confidence vote after his public safety director, Ned Pettus, overruled Jacobs and fired an officer who was video-recorded stomping on the head of a suspect who was being handcuffed. (An arbitrator later gave the officer his job back.) Ginther, in other words, seems to have less to lose by taking on the union.

In early March, city officials were still putting together an advisory committee to manage the new search process. Dawn Tyler Lee, Ginther’s deputy chief of staff for external affairs and leader of the search, wants the committee to be “representative of the community but also manageable.” She expects to name seven to nine members who will seek community input and develop a profile of an ideal police chief, which then will be shared with a search firm that the city hopes to hire by late spring or early summer.

Tyler Lee says the city hasn’t decided yet if the FOP will have a place on the advisory committee, but Ginther says the administration welcomes the union’s input whether or not it gets a seat. “The FOP will be involved just like everybody else,” Ginther says.

Columbus FOP president Keith Ferrell urges the city to keep internal candidates in mind. “They know the organization,” Ferrell says. “They know the struggles. They know the challenges. They know some of the things in the community that we need to get better at. For someone coming from outside, there’s going to be a learning curve.”

Ginther expects to see several strong internal candidates, including interim Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan, who was appointed in January. But Ginther also stresses that he wants a “change agent” to focus on police-community relations and to “be willing to hold our officers accountable,” as well as someone who can expand diversity in the division.

Can the city find such a candidate from within? According to the Civil Service Commission, 19 commanders and deputy chiefs have enough experience to qualify for the top job, but only three are women and none are black. Many of the violent police incidents of recent years involve people of color, which has strained relationships with the division. A chief who reflects communities of color might have more success repairing those ties.

Ginther says he’s set no timetable for finding his dream chief. “This is a way it’s never been done before, so we want to take our time. We want to get it right.”

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