We don't know yet who'll be Columbia's next police chief; but after all four finalists made their pitches to the press and public this week, we can be sure of several things.
Our next chief will be a change agent, a proven leader who believes in accountability and will work to build trust between the department and the citizens, a supporter of Taser use under tight controls, and someone who is smitten with our town.
We can be sure of all that because that's how the candidates described themselves, in nearly identical terms. They could almost have been reciting from the recruitment ad. It calls for "a collaborative team-player and change-agent with proven ability to increase rapport and trust within the Police Department and between the Police Department and the community."
It doesn't take much reading between the lines to realize that Bill Watkins, who'll be doing the hiring, thinks the department needs some shaking up. I've heard from a couple of City Council members that they agree. That explains why the only internal candidate didn't make the finals. It also makes more interesting the behind-the-scenes dispute over the role of the council.
The city charter gives the city manager the power to hire and fire. Article II, Section 12 of the charter prohibits council members from "interference" in personnel matters. But what constitutes "interference" and what constitutes useful advice? I'm told that there's a "food fight" these days between the council activists and Mayor for Life Hindman over that question. The activists want to tell the manager what they think of the candidates. The mayor sees that as improper.
A city attorney's opinion requested by Mayor Hindman hasn't settled the issue, at least not to the activists' satisfaction.
Bill Watkins understands that he really has just seven constituents, the council members. I know that because he once told me so. He learned at the knee of the master, Ray Beck. I'd be amazed if Bill doesn't want to know what those constituents think of what will probably be his most important hire.
It has been a quarter of a century since we last brought in an outsider as police chief. Bill Dye's five-year tenure as Columbia's first and only black department head didn't end well for anybody concerned. By 1987, the department and the community were in turmoil. Ray Beck, who had hired him, told him to quit or be fired. He quit.
Rodney Smith, the professional tree-trimmer who was then our mayor and who often seemed more comfortable with a chainsaw in his hands than a microphone, told a group of black citizens unhappy with the firing that if they didn't like Columbia they should leave. That led to an unsuccessful attempt to recall the mayor.
The lessons of history are often difficult to discern. The manager, the mayor and the community mood are all different today. So are the candidates. But surely we don't want our elected leaders to be shut out of such an important decision. Or do we?
My own advice, not solicited but not restricted by the charter, would be to hire the one female finalist, Christine Laughlin. She's the best educated of the bunch, with a law degree. She has known Columbia since her parents retired here a decade ago. She has big-city experience, 25 years in Kansas City including a stint as commander of that city's poorest and most crime-ridden division. And she was the only one of the four to demonstrate a sense of humor, which she'd surely need in this job.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.