As previously reported by Norristown Patch, Norristown Municipal Council is faced with replacing its two top cops when they retire next year and while the deadline is fast approaching, council members have yet to publicly announce plans to fill either position.
Both Police Chief Russell J. Bono and Deputy Chief Captain Willie Richet are scheduled to step down at the same time next year, and council is now tasked with filling not one, but two senior leadership roles in the Norristown Police Department by March 2013. The process has been discussed and debated by council in executive session, but as the deadline looms, disagreements on the best way to proceed have reportedly mired the process.
One option is to immediately hire a search firm to begin looking for a new chief of police. Professional services are available from groups like the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association (PCPA) that can spearhead the process for a nominal fee ($3,500 plus expenses for the PCPA).
Another option being discussed is to rehire Capt. Richet for an undetermined period of time as interim chief, giving council time to hold public forums and get community input on the process.
"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."
No decisions have been made, but both of these options (and possibly others) are reportedly on the table.
Several factors stand in the way of installing Capt. Richet as chief after both he and Chief Bono retire. Both men are retiring under the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or "DROP," and rehiring Capt. Richet after he completes his DROP could ignite a controversy similar to one seen in Philadelphia several years ago when high-ranking department heads and elected officials used the program to collect lump-sum payments and then return to their jobs.
The program was created in 1999 by the Rendell administration reportedly to help city officials plan better for personnel issues. The program allows employees to choose a retirement date years in the future, at which time pension benefits are frozen and payments go immediately into an interest-bearing account. The employee then collects a lump sum payment of their saved pension moneys from the last few years and continues to receive a pension in their retirement.
Not all municipal employees are eligible for the program. According to Municipal Manager Dave Forrest, both Chief Bono and Capt. Richet won the benefit in 2008 during a contract dispute arbitration. Some council members had reportedly been exploring options for dealing with the DROP issue, but the process is complex.
In addition to issues with the DROP program, Capt. Richet's reported lack of additional training, qualifications and degree have become a sticking point for some council members, according to sources.
A job description released in July of 2012 by the municipality's human resources department lists the required experience and education sought for the Police Chief position as:
- 10 years of increasingly responsible experience in a police department;
- Graduation from the FBI National Academy;
- Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission certification;
- National Incident Management System certifications;
- Bachelor's Degree; or
- Any equivalent combination of education and experience.
While Capt. Richet is reportedly lacking several of the listed credentials, his supporters maintain that his strong ties to the community and his years fo service have garnered him the respect needed, both in the community and in the department, to succeed in the role. Others maintain that a public search of law enforcement executives like the one that would be conducted by the PCPA is essential to ensuring Norristown gets the candidate it needs to combat its many issues.
Advice from the County
It is just that sort of public search that Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman recommended council undertake before making a decision.
Both Ferman and Montgomery County Sheriff reportedly consulted with council members regarding the search for a police chief. Both officials noted that they work closely with Norristown Police and designate significant resources to the Norristown community, giving them a significant stake in the process. According to Ferman, she encouraged council members to conduct the public search.
"The selection of a police chief in a community with the current challenges facing Norristown is one of the most important decisions its elected officials will ever have to make," Ferman wrote in an email to Norristown Patch. "My advice was they should undertake a broad search to identify the strongest possible candidates, to engage in rigorous assessments to test their skill, competence, judgment and decision-making, and only then make a selection of the most qualified candidate."
While Ferman recommended a public search, she made a point of noting that search would not necessarily discount Capt. Richet from consideration.
"Whether the future chief came from within the ranks of the current department or from the outside was not an element of the conversation..." wrote Ferman. "I have worked alongside of Captain Willie Richet for many years and I am quite fond of him. His work with young people at Norristown PAL is very important in the community. If the Municipality undertakes an objective chief selection process and Capt. Richet is deemed to be the most qualified candidate, I would look forward to working with him for many years to come."
Sheriff Behr agreed with the need for a public search and noted that she had experience with the process.
"An open and objective process to review all possible qualified applicants brings credibility to the process, may improve morale for the whole department, and provides for community involvement," Sheriff Behr wrote in an email to Norristown Patch. "My experience has shown that when a government provides opportunity for all officers and community involvement, the community will embrace the new Chief. What is critical is that the process used hold all candidates to the same standards and gives all equal opportunity to earn the executive position."
While Behr also expressed support and respect for Capt. Richet, she warned that appointing an interim chief would come with its own pitfalls.
"I was troubled by a suggestion that Norristown might choose a temporary or 'interim' chief and delay choosing a permanent chief for several years," wrote Sheriff Behr. "With the major problems facing Norristown today, failing to select a permanent chief could have a devastating effect on the community."
"Twice while an officer [with] Whitemarsh Police, the Township appointed an interim chief," Sheriff Behr continued. "During both periods, the department faced extremely low morale, distrust with government officials, and significant discipline issues. The Police Department and the community we served suffered in both situations... I would hate to see this department and community suffer simply because no one shared their past law enforcement experiences with the civilians responsible for choosing a police executive.
Council has yet to publicly address the issue of the search with just shy of four months until both Chief Bono and Capt. Richet leave their posts. It's worth noting that the PCPA, the agency council originally contacted about conducting a search, has suggested that the process should take approximately four months.
Councilman Marlon Milner responded to Norristown Patch's request to council for an update on the search with the following statement:
"The police chief issue has been in both public safety committee and talked about in executive session. But it's been a few months since I was briefed on any updates. I know we need a process and we are running out of time. I certainly intend to stand by my convictions on what is the best way for Norristown to move forward, replace Chief Bono, uphold standards of diversity and community input and enhance public safety. I welcome community input. People should come to council meetings and speak out about the issue."
Council President Gary Simpson assured Norristown Patch that he would comment on the issue as soon as a decision has been made.
Chief Bono, who was instrumental in recommending the PCPA to council for the purposes of conducting the search, said recently that he has not been involved in the process since that initial recommendation.
"I've had no involvement whatsoever, other than to provide them the names of some consulting firms early on," said Chief Bono. "Since it came to light that it could be the Captain, I've had no involvement."
Chief Bono noted that while he hasn't been consulted or asked to recommend any candidates from inside the department, he felt it was important for council to consider the need for a transition plan.
Norristown Patch will continue to follow update this story as new information becomes available.