Valley Voices

Fresno’s process to find next police chief proved skeptics were right to think the fix was in

Andy Hall speaks at a press conference after he was introduced as the acting Fresno chief of police, Friday morning, Aug. 23, 2019.
Andy Hall speaks at a press conference after he was introduced as the acting Fresno chief of police, Friday morning, Aug. 23, 2019. Fresno Bee file

I’m guilty.

I am guilty of believing that the process for selecting our next police chief would be transparent and authentically informed by the community. But more importantly, I’m guilty of encouraging others around me to also have hope and to give their own time to the process.

The news on Aug. 23 that Mayor (Lee) Brand decided to select an “interim” (to serve until 2021) chief from within the department, who did not even apply for the position — and despite reporting to suggest that there were several quality applicants to choose from — unfortunately told me and many others that this hope in the process was foolish. That is why I am writing to apologize.

Andy Levine of Faith in the Valley in Fresno. Bryan Patrick Contributed

To his credit, Mayor Brand honored the first part of his campaign commitment to engage the community in the process by organizing meetings and collecting feedback online on the priorities and values that Fresnans wanted to see reflected in our next chief. While the responses certainly reflected the diversity of our city, you can read the notes online for yourself and see clearly what we heard in person:

▪ That Fresnans, and especially young people and people of color, overwhelmingly hoped this would serve as an opportunity to shift how policing is done in our city, from one where many people and communities feel like they are treated as a problem to be interrogated, rather than a life to be protected, valued and respected.

▪ That Fresnans wanted the next chief to support proactive and preventative investments in peace and alternatives to violence, including parks and community-driven gun violence reduction programs.

▪ That Fresnans were looking for the next chief to embrace more community oversight and accountability, to help build greater trust and a shared responsibility in ensuring we can all get home safely at night.

▪ That Fresnans at the very least wanted a clear line drawn between the next chief and politics, asking that this individual not make campaign endorsements.

Knowing that Mayor Brand and Chief (Jerry) Dyer opposed several of these very recommendations — such as Measure P and Advance Peace — many people were understandably skeptical that these hopes would be taken seriously. For months, people expressed a belief that “the city already knows who they want to hire, but they are just going through this process to check off a box.”

Despite that reality, and a lack of any clarity from the mayor on how the community feedback would be concretely used in the interview process, we continued to participate — and I continued to encourage colleagues to give it a chance. And when Mayor Brand told us that Chief Dyer would have no role in the process, I also believed him.

Because the community members who participated in the interview panels with finalist candidates were required to sign “non-disclosure agreements” (which was said to protect the candidates, but now makes me have to ask if it was to also protect the city), we unfortunately have no way of knowing what they think of the mayor’s decision to not select any of the candidates and instead hire someone who didn’t apply nor get interviewed. But, while the community panelists have honored their NDA’s — for legal reasons, but also for the moral reason of honoring a commitment they made — the absence of at least a few of them from last Friday’s press conference seems to suggest a telling, if unspoken, answer to that question.

So, what do we do now? There are incredible leaders in our community who have been working for years to see Fresno grow into a more inclusive, equitable and compassionate city. There is no chance of them giving up that dream anytime soon (they never have). But, I for one will also try to be a little more thoughtful and understanding the next time someone tells me that they won’t participate or are even hesitant to vote because they doubt their voice will be heard.

While we must all do our part to defend our vulnerable neighbors, we — and especially those of us like myself with white privilege and more security — also have a responsibility to call it for what it is when our leaders continue to show in their actions that only some people actually belong at their decision-making table and the rest of us are just given a seat with an NDA.

Andy Levine is with Faith in the Valley in Fresno.