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Days before expected announcement, Kenney’s pick for police commissioner remains a mystery

The cloak of secrecy has left some stakeholders frustrated — and stands in contrast to how police commissioners have been picked in the past in Philadelphia, as well as recent searches for a top cop in some other cities.

Mayor Jim Kenney.
Mayor Jim Kenney.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Days before Mayor Jim Kenney’s self-imposed year-end deadline to name a permanent police commissioner, his choice remains a mystery to many key players in the city’s criminal justice system.

“I don’t know who it is,” John McNesby, president of the police officers’ union, said Friday.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said the same thing, and Vanessa Garrett Harley, Kenney’s deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, said: “All I know is that the mayor is set to announce his decision by the end of the year.”

The search has attracted interest because it represents more than just a parlor game. The person chosen to lead the 6,500-member department will have the opportunity to reshape an agency rocked by several scandals this year, including a sexual-harassment lawsuit that ultimately led to the abrupt resignation of former Commissioner Richard Ross.

The cloak of secrecy has left some stakeholders frustrated — and stands in contrast to how police commissioners have been picked in the past in Philadelphia, as well as recent searches for a top cop in some other cities.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor of the historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and an outspoken advocate for police reform, said he understood the need for some level of discretion during the process, particularly before any finalists had been selected. But introducing finalists to interested stakeholders can provide the candidates and the community with a better sense of a potential fit, Tyler said: “Everybody benefits [from] more information, not less information.”

He added: “What I’m calling for fits into the mold of where policing is going, which is greater transparency. And what we’ve witnessed so far from the administration is just the opposite.”

Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Kenney, said Friday that more information about the process would be shared when the announcement occurs. As for when that might happen, she said simply: “We’re still on track to have an announcement by the end of the year.”

Seattle in 2018 undertook a contentious but comparatively transparent eight-month process that ultimately made room for intense public debate.

There, a committee of city leaders and civic advocates conducted a nationwide search and announced three finalists, all from outside Seattle. Then-interim Chief Carmen Best, a 26-year department veteran, was not initially on that list, an omission that sparked an outcry from community members and the police union, along with an inquiry by the Seattle Community Police Commission.

A few months later, Mayor Jenny Durkan nominated her to the post.

Even with that groundswell, Best still had to make her case at public hearings before she was confirmed to the job by a City Council vote.

A year earlier, when Dallas launched its search for its next chief, the city publicly issued a list of eight finalists and invited each candidate to sit for interviews with not only city staff but also panels composed of stakeholders from faith groups, the police union, and victim advocates.

Finalists attended a reception with community leaders as well as a “citizen meet-and-greet” at City Hall before the decision was made.

And although the choice ultimately was left to City Manager T.C. Broadnax and his staff, officials cited the community input as influential in their decision to hire Renee Hall as the city’s first female chief.

Philadelphia has not previously had a search with that level of transparency. Still, the last three police commissioners were telegraphed in advance.

Ross — who retired earlier this year after a former subordinate claimed in a lawsuit that he retaliated against her for cutting off their affair — was all but guaranteed the top spot in 2015, when Kenney, then the Democratic mayoral candidate, said he wouldn’t look outside the department to replace the retiring Charles Ramsey.

At the time, Ross was second-in-command and seemingly had been groomed for the job for years. In fact, Ross’ name was floated by department and city insiders in 2007, when Ramsey was given the job by then-Mayor Michael Nutter.

Ramsey’s candidacy was similarly easy to predict. Three weeks before his appointment was announced, Nutter, who had just been elected mayor, told the Daily News that he had “looked across the nation to find the best person for our city” and that no one fit that description better than Ramsey, the former Washington, D.C., chief.

Ramsey’s predecessor, Sylvester Johnson, had served as interim commissioner when John Timoney retired. Like Ross, he seemingly had been prepared for the job for years, and he had the public backing of State Rep. Dwight Evans, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, and Nutter, then a city councilman, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and the Guardian Civic League organization of black officers.

After four months — and despite earlier promises to conduct a national search — then-Mayor John Street took their advice and appointed Johnson to the post.

Kenney was a City Council member during each of those mayors’ tenures. On Friday, his staff declined to give any clues about his plans. “Hold tight” was all Managing Director Brian Abernathy would say.

Late in the day, his office, as it routinely does, issued its guidance for the mayor’s weekend schedule. “The Mayor has no public events this weekend,” it said.

In the end, Kenney could take a page from his predecessors and simply elevate his acting police commissioner, Christine Coulter, to the permanent post. But this week, even Coulter said she was in the dark.

“I know what you know,” she told a reporter Tuesday. “And when the mayor has his decision, I’m hoping he’ll be sharing it with all of us.”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Samantha Melamed, Jeremy Roebuck, Vinny Vella, Sean Collins Walsh, and David Gambacorta.