This is a crucial week for the Tallahassee Police Department. The process of picking a new chief is fully underway. A man who used to hold down that job, has returned in the interim and is determined to turn over a clean operation.
Tallahassee City Manager Anita Favors Thompson put Assistant City Manager Tom Coe back in charge of the police department when Darryl Jones took an early retirement in September.
“I was surprised, but I was also very honored when the manager asked me to do this. I think TPD’s a great organization and I love this organization, the people in it, but again, I was surprised.”
Coe was police chief from 1994 to 1997. He says he even found many of his personal case files from those days right where he left them in the chief’s office, along with some policies he put in place.
“The Citizen Police Academy is still here. We just graduated our 58th class. Some of the crime analysis units are still here, our Tactical Operations Team is still here. A lot of the units we put in place back then have survived several administrations.”
Coe says there are other priorities he’s reviving from his previous tenure at TPD.
“We’ve gone back and looked at our use-of-force policies and made some revisions in that. We’re looking at our training polcies and we’re going to enhance our training policies in that way. We’re looking at all our internal investigations to make sure we complete all those before a new chief comes on. My goal is to have a very clean slate for a new chief when they take over this administration.”
Changes to the use-of-force policy stem from the arrest back in August of DUI suspect Christina West, who was seriously injured during her arrest. The two arresting officers, Matthew Smidt and Chris Ormerod have been suspended with pay. Recently the Capital City Villager reported that Officer Ormerod had several instances of professional misconduct in his record, some involving the use of force. The case is now being considered by a grand jury. Former California Law Officer Diop Kamau is now a nationally known investigator of police abuses. He says cases like this usually have early warning signs.
“If an officer has five or six arrests and in each one he claims he was the victim of an assault, or that the person was resisting, or the person was interfering, it says that there’s something going wrong. And I think the police departments are often sitting on their heels waiting until the bad news comes and not taking a proactive role by questioning, intervening and imposing discipline at the lower level.”
For Second Judicial Circuit Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell, modern policing is a bit like walking a tightrope.
“Once they’re there they have to handle the situation and obviously protecting themselves is an important part. But you’re also recognized as community servants so finding that balance between following their job and still doing the job that we want them to do – and doing it in the manner we want them to do it – is a difficult job for me as a prosecutor and I’m sure it is for the officers on the street.”
With more than forty years of familiarity with the people and processes of the Tallahassee Police Department, Interim Chief Coe says he’s just the guy to make sure everything’s shipshape before the new permanent chief takes over.
“We have a very small number that sometime don’t follow policies and we’re going to hold them accountable. If you don’t follow policy, you can expect to be held accountable and we will take the appropriate action.”
Last week, the field of candidates for the chief’s job was narrowed to seven from an original field of 57. The seven include two members of the TPD command staff. All met with two groups of city staff and law enforcement people on Friday. The city manager now has their recommendations and will meet with the candidates herself this week. A 12-member citizens committee will also talk with the applicants and give Favors-Thompson its recommendations. And Coe, who’s been her second in command for nearly 17 years, thinks he has some insight into what she’s looking for.
“I think the manager’s looking for a new chief who will have very high ethical standards, be highly motivated, be a real consensus builder and really be a building of relationships in the community, can deal with all different aspects of the community, so it is the community’s police chief. I think that’s critically important.”
One thing’s almost certain: the name of Tallahassee’s new police chief shouldn’t be long in coming.