Along with a few other cities in the whole United States, the City of Santa Clara has kept the pre-civil rights tradition of electing police chiefs. Back then, the practice was rooted in the need for a more rural public to have a voice in the selection of a police chief and the absence of ethnic or cultural diversity (Santa Clara was 99.1% White). Among a very small number of city residents today, there seems to be a belief that an elected police chief will most likely conduct their duties as per the wishes of their community, including the need to be accountable. That may, however, not be the case, and more so in Santa Clara, where complaints of low morale, excessive force, and internal racism have rocked the police force in recent years.
The city is at a juncture where serious consideration should be given to abandoning the 70-year tradition of electing police chiefs.
Before delving further into the topic, it is important for all of us to be on the same footing as far as the meaning of “accountability” is concerned.
The Oxford Dictionary gives a rather straightforward definition and states that accountability is “the fact of being responsible for your decisions or actions and expected to explain them when you are asked.”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines accountability as “the quality or state of being accountable. Especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”.
The two definitions mean pretty much the same thing, and when applied to police chiefs or public servants, it can be said that accountability is about the extent to which public officials are answerable to the people they serve and can be held responsible for their actions.
The challenges Santa Clara faces with an elected police chief are well-articulated in the studies below, which also show why appointed police chiefs are better. The studies are from reputable institutions, including Virginia Law Review, Hofstra University, and Harvard University.
In the study “Don’t Elect Me: Sheriffs and the Need for Reform in County Law Enforcement” by James Tomberlin, published in the Virginia Law Review, interesting points are raised regarding the election of police chiefs and what that implies for accountability. First, the paper pokes holes in the function of elections as an effective means of ensuring police accountability and alludes to the need for city and county governments to have immediate power in holding law enforcement accountable.
In illustrating the point, Tomberlin draws comparisons between how state laws govern city police departments and sheriff-led county law enforcement and its negative implications for local accountability. The author offers an example of how the formation of the County Police Department in Missouri led to improved accountability.
Panton, Nolan, and Rigos also delve into the issue with their study “Electing Law Enforcement Leadership: Examining the Effects of Politics and Job-Related Qualifications on Personnel Assessment and Decisions for Sheriff.” The study addresses the very important question of the professional qualification of police chiefs. According to the authors, partisan beliefs heavily influence the electorate when they vote for a police chief… that voters are approximately 40% likely to endorse candidates with lower job-related qualifications when they share their political affiliations. This is in stark contrast to nonelected positions, where a few select personnel with in-depth knowledge of job requirements select people to fill vacant positions. The study puts emphasis on the need to put greater weight on the compatibility between candidates’ job-related qualifications and job requirements.
Another interesting study was published by Michael Zoorob, a Harvard University-affiliated scholar. In an extensive exercise, Zoorob assembles a database of 5,500 local sheriff’s elections dating back to 1958. One of the key findings he makes is that the tenure of a county sheriff was 11 years, compared to just 4 years for an appointed police chief. The reason for this is that sheriffs become entrenched in their positions, while appointed police chiefs are more likely to face regular evaluations and feedback from their superiors and the public. The study also observes that the need for county residency before one can be elected to the sheriff position limits the number of qualified candidates that can become county police chiefs. “There’s (rarely) a new Sheriff in town. The incumbency advantage for county Sheriffs.”
Zoorob supports this by observing that there were up to 68 instances of misconduct that personally implicated elected county sheriffs in 2015-2016 alone. For instance, in South Carolina, one of every four county sheriffs has been accused of lawbreaking, from corruption to driving under the influence. The findings are contrasted by the finding that appointed police chiefs are subject to stricter ethical codes and professional standards that may deter them from committing or accepting wrongdoing.
A poll conducted by CBS also showed that “Most Americans think changes to policing are necessary.” In relation to local police, only 28% of Americans responded that they are doing very well. It should, however, be noted that a few cities still hold the practice of electing police chiefs, and, therefore, the results reflect overall police conduct – which Americans generally find to be problematic.
From the studies, it can be concluded that perhaps the core reason why appointed police chiefs are more accountable than elected ones is that they are subject to more immediate oversight from higher authorities, such as mayors, city managers or city boards. These authorities can hire, fire, or discipline police chiefs based on their performance, policies, and conduct. Elected police chiefs and sheriffs can do pretty much what they want as they don’t have to immediately answer to anyone else like appointed chiefs do. This implies that elected police chiefs will not care as much about what the people in their cities or counties want, and they might not be open to progressive ideas such as the need to be accountable, 21st Century Policing concepts, and police reform. From the findings, everyone should be okay with the idea of doing away with the pre-civil rights era elected police chief in Santa Clara.
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