CHRONICLE PHOTO - An illuminated Springfield Police sign inside the department.
SPRINGFIELD — Questioning transparency of the process, nearly a dozen Springfield residents at this week’s City Council meeting cited their concerns, disappointment, and sense of betrayal in how the City came to its decision of hiring its newest police chief.
After serving as interim police chief for nearly a year, Andrew Shearer was officially appointed to the role on March 28.
"I wanted someone with fresh eyes who could focus on addressing issues and making improvements within the department," Newton told The Chronicle on Thursday. "I intentionally gave space for that hard work to get underway before we developed a process for a national recruitment for the permanent police chief."
Newton said that change was needed to respond to community needs, to create department stability, and "to help position our department for a successful recruitment effort."
Still, residents said that this “sudden, permanent appointment” was not what they were "promised" nearly a year ago by city leadership.
“We were given very specific promises … and I don’t see any of that has happened,” said resident Shaay Gallagher-Starr.
Those promises were pulled up by Gallagher-Starr and other speakers, who pointed to city manager Nancy Newton’s comments at the June 7, 2021 city council meeting. At that meeting, which can be viewed on the City’s YouTube channel, Newton – responsible for conducting the search and making the hire – said that she wanted to “involve all members of our community” during the national search for a new chief. She said that she would seek:
• Input from underrepresented and less vocal voices;
• Input from the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities;
• Input from city council;
• Input from the Springfield Police Alumni Association; and
• Assistance from a professional recruiting firm to make the hire.
“None of that happened,” resident Carol Heart said at Monday’s meeting. “Suddenly, we have a permanent police chief … without a national search or community input.”
“I feel betrayed and like a fool for believing that a promise made by the City would be kept,” Holly Schaper, resident, said. “It’s another instance of ‘just trust us’ leading to disappointment.”
Newton said that Shearer has surpassed "every expectation in the past 11 months.
"I knew he had considerable talent and experience. What I couldn’t anticipate was how well-suited he was for our City and our community," Newton said.
The criticism raised by residents was not directly related to the performance or skill set of Shearer himself; rather, residents cited concerns about how the hiring process was or was not handled by Newton – one that was billed by city leaders as transparent, equitable and involving community input.
“As for the reasoning behind this dramatic change of heart, I believe the residents of Springfield deserve an explanation on that process,” said resident Anthony Reed.
Council was advised by its attorney to not respond to residents following the public forum, though councilor Leonard Stoehr assured the speakers after the public comment period that the council “listened intently” to their concerns.
Jennifer Potter, resident, said that the way that the process was handled “doesn’t give the chief the best start” to his tenure.
“It’s really not fair to Chief Shearer,” Potter said. “Even though he may be the most qualified candidate, by not having an open search, the community now has no way of knowing if he is the most qualified candidate.” She said that, if there had been a more open search, the community would feel more trust and confidence in Shearer moving forward.
"Trust-building occurs at all levels in SPD from the individual interactions each member has daily with the public, to larger scale city-wide efforts," Shearer told The Chronicle on Wednesday. "Partnership with community to create a shared vision for the future of the department will be the path that leads us to future successes.”
Residents, like “Grace B.,” asked what steps are being taken to ensure that future decisions regarding high-profile hires are transparent, how the City will increase community confidence in its processes, and what the City should do to ensure the best candidate is selected.
Some residents requested that the City consider these decisions to be made from hiring panels composed of community members and mandate national searches for future leadership positions.
“It is critical that the city council work to form an oversight commission with oversight of SPD that includes representatives from marginalized and over-policed groups,” Gallagher-Starr said.
“We in this community have a very serious and troubling problem,” Heart said. “Confidence in our city leadership and SPD needs to be restored and trust regained. I believe that’s totally possible.”
Shearer told The Chronicle that he's committed to "leading with optimism" with "a heart of service."
Newton said that she's confidence in the depth of Shearer's capacity and commitment in this role.
"He is changing the culture of the department by leading with empathy for others," Newton said. "He is an exemplary leader who is dedicated to serving all community members with respect, fairness, and dignity while also providing the department the support and leadership it deserves."
Community members can meet with Shearer through upcoming “Coffee with the Chief” opportunities. These opportunities will be shared via the City’s website, social media site, and through media once scheduled.