S.E. Williams | Contributor
San Bernardino hired its first Black police officer, Johnnie Epps, in 1947. We will never know what aspirations he held for advancement in the department as he died in a tragic auto accident in 1950. What we do know however, is for Black and Brown police officers, diversity has its limits when it comes to promotions.
Had Epps lived he might be surprised and disappointed to learn in the 72 years since he broke the color barrier in the San Bernardino Police Department there has been minimal progress relative to equality of opportunity for people of color in the agency.
The history and reputation of San Bernardino’s Police Department is less than stellar in this regard so when Police Chief Jarrod Burguan announced his retirement recently members of the community were naturally curious regarding who would be tapped to replace him.
Burguan who served the department for 27 years and was celebrated for the role he played in coordinating the police response to the terror attack on December 2, 2015. This past January he had knee replacement surgery and has been on disability since. During his absence, Eric McBride has served as the city’s acting chief, so it was not surprising when the department announced McBride would continue in that capacity until a new Police Chief was identified.
This decision prompted a few questions. Firstly, what process will the city follow to find a permanent replacement? If the decision is made to permanently appoint McBride to the position is the city following a pattern that allows it to name someone like McBride to an acting role in order to best position him for a permanent promotion to chief? Finally, does this vacancy present an opportunity for a minority to apply and be appointed to the position?
In an exclusive exchange with the city’s newly appointed city manager, Teri Ledoux, she confirmed there is no decision regarding how long McBride will continue to serve in the acting role. “There is no end date for “Higher Acting” as a department head,” she explained. “It ends when the position is filled.”
Ledoux could not or would not provide additional clarity regarding when the city would open the police chief position to the general public for competitive, qualified candidates to apply. In addition, when asked whether there would be a delay in the city beginning its search for a new chief and if so why? Her response to this question was an ambiguous. She stated, “[That is] to be determined.”
According to Ledoux, “Executive hires are generally completed by using an outside executive recruiter unless the city manager identifies and promotes a qualified employee within the organization.”
However, for constituents who are wondering about the fairness and transparency of the selection process and what guidelines the city has established for executive recruiters to guide their recruitments efforts—there is no way of knowing whether the selection process will be fair and transparent because, as Ledoux explained, “There are no guidelines for hiring a Police Chief. It’s the City Manager’s discretion on whether to recruit or hire from within the organization.”
Although Ledoux is new to her role as City Manager a written explanation of her job duties includes her being, “the appointing authority and supervisor for most of the city’s department heads.”
Even so, many believe there should still be a documented and transparent process to guide the appointment of a new chief. For a city manager to have such discretion in this regard is ominous. Police chiefs wield such authority over the communities they serve many believe their appointments are worthy of a deliberative process that extends beyond subjective and pre-conceived selections.
“We need to resist the tyranny of low expectations. We need to open our eyes to the inequality that remains. We won’t unlock the full potential of the workplace until we see how far from equality we really are.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
The last time the city conducted an official search to fill the position of police chief was when Chief Robert Handy was hired in 2011. In October 2013 Handy announced his departure and in December 2013 Burguan was appointed Interim Police Chief by Mayor Patrick Morris prior to his appointment as Police Chief by Mayor R. Carey Davis in March 2014.
It appears serving as acting chief gave Burguan an advantage when it came to filling the position permanently. The search process to fill such a position can take a few months, but apparently not for the City of San Bernardino. Burguan was permanently appointed within two months and it now appears McBride is being positioned to become Police Chief in the same manner.
The inland region has witnessed a similar approach taken by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department with a slightly different twist.
When the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors appointed John McMahon assistant sheriff to succeed Sheriff Rod Hoops who retired December 31, 2012 some cried foul. Afterall, Hoops was re-elected in 2010 and was only half-way through his new term. There were allegations shortly after his re-election in 2010 that Hoops would not serve his full term—he already had plans to take a new position in Washington, D. C. As suspected, two years into the new term Hoops announced he would retire and recommended McMahon be appointed to complete the remaining two years of his term.
This gave McMahon an unparalleled advantage over any competitor during the 2014 election cycle. Afterall, for two years before the election he had an opportunity to serve in the role, his name became synonymous with sheriff in San Bernardino County and he benefited from press coverage during that two-year period.
Perhaps the McMahon scenario might not have raised as much suspicion and speculation had an almost identical scenario not benefited Hoops and resulted in his appointment as sheriff before McMahon.
Hoops became sheriff of San Bernardino County in January 2009 when his predecessor, Gary Penrod, chose to resign as sheriff midterm. Hoops was then able to run as an incumbent and was elected in his own right in November 2010.
Like McMahon, Hoops benefitted by serving in the role as an appointee for nearly two years and benefitted from the name recognition and the media coverage that comes with being an incumbent. This gave him a definite advantage over the competition during the next election.
In all these instances the city and county have found ways to successfully work their will to assure selection of their candidate of choice to fill the top law enforcement positions within their jurisdictions without opening the opportunity to other qualified and competitive candidates.
These workarounds appear to avoid a fair and transparent selection process that could create opportunities for candidates of color. Changing demographics have laid the foundation for greater representation of the citizens being served by these high-profile positions.
The City of San Bernardino now has an opportunity to do just that and the first step would be to open the search and selection process in a way that is fair and transparent. This is especially warranted considering the city’s abysmal record regarding opportunities for minorities in the police department.
In the department’s 114-year history there have been 38 police chiefs—not one of them were Black and only one Brown person has ever served in that capacity.
When this is considered in context of other shortcomings of the department and the limited promotions given to minorities whether to fill positions as captain, lieutenant, detective or sergeant, the number of Blacks promoted to these positions in the department’s 114-year history combined total less than a dozen.
It is incumbent on city officials to assure the selection/appointment process to fill the position of police chief is fair. In other words—impartial, honest and free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.
San Bernardino’s police department has a long way to go before the make-up of its officers reflect the demographics of the city and even further to go for the department’s leadership to do the same.
This agency is far behind the city’s demographic curve and it appears city and police officials remain reluctant to make any progress on this issue without a demand from members of the community.