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The police chief circus

The last several weeks have seen the search for a new Durham police chief transform from a competition among three seemingly qualified candidates into a rollercoaster of scandal and public embarrassment. First, City Manager Marcia Conner dropped Interim Chief Steve Chalmers from consideration, despite the support of the City Council, after finding out that he was less than forthcoming about a 1982 domestic assault charge. Gregory Watkins, a retired deputy chief from Kansas City, Mo., resigned last week after Conner chose him, due to his own background of alleged domestic assault. Now, the lone finalist officially in consideration, William Carcara from Louisville, Ky., may not even take the job.

City officials need to act now to ensure a solid direction for the Durham Police Department. Hopefully today's meeting between Conner and the City Council will yield productive results. Both Conner and the city council must learn several lessons from this debacle.

The Oldani Group, the private consulting firm hired by the city to conduct the search, deserves a hefty share of the blame. That this supposedly professional and experienced company did not discover the candidates' criminal backgrounds earlier in the process is ridiculous. The city should hold Oldani accountable for its failure, which hurts the reputation of the city's government and police and could also have a real, lasting impact on the safety of Durham citizens.

Watkins' withdrawal was unfortunate, but little can be done about his candidacy now. Carcara remains a viable candidate, and, as several City Council members have noted, Chalmers also should remain in contention. His explanation for not revealing his arrest is plausible enough and two decades have passed since the arrest. Officials overreacted by questioning his integrity, which he has built as a member of the Durham Police Department. Over the next weeks, Conner should consider both Carcara and Chalmers.

However, the rest of this process should remain private. As it should be, the search has been very public with open forums for citizen input. But, when a search enters its hiring stages, public endorsements and speculation from City Council members and other officials are inappropriate. By expressing a preference for one candidate or another, City Council members turned the search into a circus, undermining the authority of the eventual chief. Moreover, speculation that Conner has already offered the job to Carcara creates expectations that could go unfulfilled.

Regardless of who takes the helm of the Durham police force, Conner and City Council members should stand behind him. Facing a crime problem that shows little sign of improving, the people of Durham need an experienced officer running their police department, not a politician.

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