Picking police chiefs and the 'Cincinnati syndrome'

If Seattle folk wisdom holds true, the new chief will be the one from Sacramento. But who ever accused Mayor McGinn of following Seattle traditions?
If Seattle folk wisdom holds true, the new chief will be the one from Sacramento. But who ever accused Mayor McGinn of following Seattle traditions?

Following the search for a new Seattle police chief calls to mind an old observation about Seattle and such searches, a bit of folk wisdom imparted by former Seattle Congressman Joel Pritchard. He called it his "Man from Cincinnati" story.

According to this pattern, high-level searches inevitably boil down to three finalists. One is the number-two person in the department seeking a new leader. Two is the wild-card, a person who has striking qualifications but not in the field being sought. Third is "the man (or woman) from Cincinnati," a person who holds the top job in the same department but in a slightly smaller city fairly far away.

So far, we are pretty true to form. The number-two person is current interim chief John Diaz. The wild card is Ronald Davis, chief of a very small city, E. Palo Alto, California (pop. 33,000), untested by command in a large city like Seattle. The "Cincinnati candidate" is Rick Braziel, current chief of Sacramento, slightly smaller than Seattle.

According to the Pritchard theory, the Cincinnati candidate is the likely winner. The reason, he explained, is the psychology of search committees. Above all, they want to avoid blame for a bad choice. The local number-two has been around long enough to have become type-cast as a number-two person and for his or her warts to have been discovered. ("How could you not have known about his two traffic tickets?!") The wild-card also carries danger to the committee members. ("Why in the world would you pick somebody who's never run a similar operation?!"). As for the Cincinnati person, who could blame the committee if she or he is a dud? The candidate was too far away for anyone to know about the warts and seemed to have all the qualifications. ("We're innocent!!")

So does this mean we should prepare to welcome Chief Braziel? Could well be. Chief Diaz, a very good candidate from what I can tell, has the problem of heading a department currently under siege for the ethnic slurs and kicking of a downed Hispanic man, so he's probably (and unfairly) taken out of the running politically. On the other hand, given Mayor McGinn's deep sympathies for Seattle's black and ethnic communities (and the currently inflamed issues there), Chief Davis, an African American, may be able to overcome the wild-card syndrome.

The other X-factor is McGinn's fondness for surrounding himself with young, inexperienced insurgents. He's determined to be a new kind of mayor, pushing for ideas ahead of their time, discarding wise old hands (like budget director Dwight Dively or parks superintendent Tim Gallagher), and looking for ideological consistency. He doesn't like the establishment, the entrenched interest groups, and old-think. Welcome, Chief Davis?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors