Recent leadership changes at five of the Treasure Valley’s largest police agencies combine the comfort of continuity with the energy of transformation, experts say.
And all of the new law enforcement leaders in Ada and Canyon counties promise an increased emphasis on community engagement and interaction.
“I don’t recall ever seeing this much change in such a short period of time,” said Vaughn Killeen, who served two decades as Ada County sheriff and has been active in Valley law enforcement for 40 years. “But to be frank with you, when it occurred it didn’t strike me as unusual because there were good reasons.”
Killeen, now executive director of the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, and others interviewed by the Statesman chalked up the string of new leaders in 2015 to a coincidence, albeit a rare one. In the preceding decade, no more than two major Treasure Valley departments’ top spots changed hands in any one year.
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In 2007, both Meridian and Caldwell police got new chiefs. In 2005, Boise police and the Ada County Sheriff’s Office got new leaders.
“I don’t think there was any dark force that was ascending,” Killeen said. “Some of it was just a natural process of people retiring and deciding to go elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, the chiefs who decided to retire were all good quality chiefs — but so are the new ones.”
Those new leaders, in the order that they took the helm, are Boise Police Chief Bill Bones, Garden City Police Chief Rick Allen, Ada County Sheriff Steve Bartlett, Caldwell Police Chief Frank Wyant and Nampa Police Chief Joe Huff. The only large Canyon or Ada law enforcement agencies that didn’t swear in new leaders this past year are the Meridian Police Department, where Jeff Lavey has headed the force for eight years, and the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office, where Kieran Donahue just entered his fourth year in office.
“I’m not shocked by it,” Caldwell’s Wyant said of the turnover. “The encouraging aspect of it is, I’ve worked with a lot of the new chiefs and the sheriffs for a long time. We’ve already been partners in law enforcement.”
UP THROUGH THE RANKS
“Just because you’re a new chief doesn’t mean you lack the expertise to guide the agency,” Killeen said. “You’re chosen because you have that experience and ability.”
That said, he added, “when you’ve been in the top job for a while, it certainly makes a difference. It ... solidifies relationships and reputation. You hone your decision-making skills through leadership.”
Each of the Valley’s new law enforcement leaders has at least a decade or two of experience in his agency, so they all know and are known by the communities they serve.
“It’s not like they’re new to the area,” Killeen said. “They understand the culture; they understand the citizens they serve.”
In all but one of the five jurisdictions, the new top officer was previously second-in-command or the departing leader’s choice as a successor.
“One thing in our area, (the new leaders) have been really well-groomed by their predecessors,” said Andy Giacomazzi, a criminal justice professor at Boise State University. “They took the time to make sure they’re in a good position to take over the agency.”
That was the case with former Caldwell Police Chief Chris Allgood, who announced his retirement last year and ran successfully for the Caldwell City Council.
“He was great,” said Chief Wyant, who took the reins in December after about eight years as Allgood’s second-in-command. “It actually was quite easy for me to transition from being the captain ... there wasn’t a whole lot for me to learn.”
Wyant said he plans to take the same approach when he looks ahead to retirement.
In Nampa, the past five police chiefs had each served as deputy chief before they moved up. But Mayor Bob Henry told the Statesman he chose Lt. Joe Huff over the current deputy chief and another lieutenant in part because he was looking for change, and Huff had fewer ties to previous administrations.
“That’s because there’s a new mayor,” Killeen said.
Police chiefs are selected by mayors and confirmed by city councils. Sheriffs are elected officials; though county commissioners can decide who fills a vacancy in a non-election year, “the only people who can fire you are the people who elect you every four years,” Killeen said.
‘NOTHING LIKE BEING THE TOP GUY’
“The biggest challenge that I see, and this is for any new police chief or sheriff, is that it’s a tough job,” Giacomazzi said. “There’s a stiff learning curve, in particular for the administrative parts of the job.”
Multiple constituencies vie to control the chief’s priorities: local government, his officers and other department employees, community members and special interest groups.
“You can’t just leave one of those out and say, well, I’m going to focus for the first year just on the mayor and council, or I’m just going to concentrate on my employees,” Giacomazzi said. “Plus, you have to be responsive to the media.
There is a big balancing act, and that takes time for police chiefs and sheriffs to figure out.
Andy Giacomazzi, Boise State professor
“There’s nothing like being the top guy. You are the person who has to show that ... crime is reduced, that you’re establishing goals and priorities for the agency, that you’ve properly developed your budget. And that’s just for the constituencies of city and county government.”
All the new chiefs have plenty of experience dealing with crime. But budgeting and navigating political expectations can be unexpectedly time-consuming tasks, Giacomazzi noted.
“I spend a tremendous amount of time in meetings and in planning,” said Garden City Police Chief Rick Allen, who spent 12 years as deputy chief before longtime Chief James Bensley retired in March. “I spend a lot more time dealing with the City Council and the media.
“But I can’t say anything surprised me. I was prepared for a difficult transition, and what I’ve found is that it’s been smooth. What’s nice is you get to see the growth within your agency.
“As deputy chief, I managed daily operations. As chief I can set the direction of the department.”
NEW BLOOD, NEW ENERGY
What can residents of these jurisdictions expect? Change.
“New agency heads typically have a lot of energy,” Giacomazzi said. “They have fresh takes, fresh ideas on the kinds of programs and initiatives that other sheriffs and chiefs have started.”
And coming up through the ranks alongside their staff creates credibility and trust for those efforts, he said.
“Not only is it symbolically important, but in terms of what they’re asking their police officers to do, these guys have all done it,” Giacomazzi said.
I think often the troops like to see change from time to time. It exhilarates them and provides a needed shot in the arm, even if the person who had been in charge was doing a great job.
Vaughn Killeen, Idaho Sheriffs’ Association.
Wyant agreed, saying “it’s an exciting time” for Caldwell police. “Although they’re a little worried about change, they like change.”
He said he’s holding one-on-one meetings with each of his department’s more than 70 employees, running his ideas past them and getting feedback and buy-in before starting any new initiatives.
Garden City’s Allen said he “took a collaborative approach with my management team. We made it our goal to have more ... focus on positive contacts within the community rather than just enforcement contacts. Forging relationships is everything.”
Giacomazzi said that’s a growing trend throughout the Valley and a growing expectation from community members.
Boise Chief Bones established a new Downtown policing district, envisioned as the first of several districts inb which officers spend time on foot, bikes or scooters interacting with citizens. Nampa’s Huff and Caldwell’s Wyant both said they want to see more casual interaction with residents and merchants before emergencies arise.
“It’s like getting to know your banker before you need a loan,” Wyant said.
Giacomazzi recalls walking down the Greenbelt on the Boise State campus this past November when he saw an officer in the BPD’s bright yellow bike uniform riding toward him.
“He stopped and took his helmet off, and who is it? It’s Chief Bones, getting out and meeting people,” Giacomazzi said. “I didn’t say anything at the time, but ... I thought, that is really impressive.”
Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447
Rule for retirement
Have you noticed that many Idaho police chiefs and sheriffs retire by their early 50s, then often go on to new jobs?
That’s because of the Rule of 80, which makes police and firefighters fully eligible for retirement benefits when their age and years of experience add up to 80 or more. Since police often choose that line of work early in life, they tend to reach that total in their early 50s.
Other public employees in Idaho have a higher bar for retirement: the Rule of 90.