[Editor's Note: This is the first in a planned ongoing series exploring Norristown's search for a new Chief and Deputy Chief of Police. Check back with Norristown Patch for more on this issue as it develops.]
Norristown Patch has learned that Norristown Municipal Council is currently mulling its options for replacing its two top cops when they retire next year.
Both Police Chief Russell J. Bono and Deputy Chief Captain Willie Richet are scheduled to step down at the same time in April 2013, and council is now tasked with filling not one, but two senior leadership roles in the Norristown Police Department in the next seven months.
While that process would be no easy feat for any municipality, it's made more complicated for Norristown by budget constraints, a short timeline and disagreements by council on the best way to proceed.
Council has made it clear that they are still in the early stages of the process and no decisions have been made, but several options have reportedly already emerged from executive sessions on the subject.
One option would be immediately hiring an executive search company that specializes in hiring law enforcement heads. Council has already met with the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association (PCPA) to discuss the organization's executive search services.
According to the PCPA, they can prepare the job announcement and distribute it to its members, screen the applicants, help with the interview and exam process and even provide experienced chiefs to conduct, evaluate, and score interviews. They would also make recommendations and provide a chief to sit in on the final interviews.
Tom Armstong, a testing and consulting coordinator for the PCPA, said the cost for the sevice is $3,500 plus expenses and the process should take approximately four months.
Council had reportedly also planned to meet with another search agency, Safe Cities, LLC, in July, but cancelled the meeting.
Another option being considered is to ask Capt. Richet to stay on as an interim chief while council searches for a candidate. This, says Council President Gary Simpson, will allow council to open the search process up to input from residents and community groups.
"We just think it would be a good fit for a period of time," said Simpson. "It gives us a chance to really sit back and discuss with the community what they are looking for in a police chief."
Simpson says Capt. Richet's strong ties to the community and 40 years of service in the Norristown Police Department make him an ideal candidate to help "bridge some gaps" between the police and the community that have developed over the years.
Council Marlon Milner echoed similar sentiments in a statement emailed to Norristown Patch:
"...On public safety, what I care about most is credibility and respect on the streets. After walking the streets of Norristown for months late at night, I know all these youth aren't bad, even the ones hanging out at one in the morning. But can a replacement – interim or permanent – get respect on the streets? Respect will go a long way to getting information on a tough homicide investigation, or calming tensions that sometimes arise between cops and certain communities."
Some council members believe Capt. Richet garners that respect, both in the community and in the department.
It's unclear how long council would expect Capt. Richet to remain as interim chief if he's rehired. Time periods from one to three years have reportedly been discussed, but not everyone on council believes the process should take so long.
"I am pushing that we begin the process of hiring a search firm and start the process of obtaining applicants for police chief immediately," Councilwoman Dr. Mary DeSouza said in an email statement. "I believe that if we are to need an interim chief past the retirement date of Chief Bono and Captain Richet, that time period should be brief. Finding a new chief should not be delayed."
That said, DeSouza doesn't discount the need for community involvement in the search.
"I will push for full transparency of the process," DeSouza said. "I believe that the community should be involved and should get involved right now offering not only opinions of the type of chief they would like to see move Norristown into the future, but also bring ideas forward for ways to strengthen community-policing relationships. I don't believe the community should wait for Municipal Staff or Council members to reach out to them. They need to step forward now."
Simpson agrees on the need for transparency, but stated more time is needed for council to really explore all of its options.
"We need to take the time," said Simpson. "We need to have the community involved."
Simpson cited the Norristown Area School District as a success story for why a drawn out selection process would benefit the municipality.
"One of the reasons why the superintendent search at the [school district] was good was because they opened it up," he said. "They gave us the opportunity to meet with the short list of candidates and ask the questions because all of our kids were going to school there."
"It just made sense," Simpson conitued. "You have to give the residents the opportunity to speak to the situations, the concerns, the problems... because at the end of the day, we all have to live with the decision that we make."
Check back with Norristown Patch for the next in this series exploring the search for a new Chief and Deputy Chief of Police – "Roadblocks in the Process."