Deputy Chief Phil Schenck wants to be a police chief, just not in Sunnyside right now. Sgt. Greg Cobb is willing to fill in for a while but has no interest in trying for the permanent top spot up the road in Union Gap. At the other end of the Yakima Valley, Sgt. John Markus has been interim chief in Prosser since June, but did not apply for the vacant leadership job.
Why so many troops without generals?
“If I really wanted to be a police chief, I would make that work,” said Cobb. “To me, I just still want to be a cop.”
The three small Yakima Valley cities have vacancies at the helm of their police departments, and in all three cases the men filling in as interim chiefs have not applied for the head job.
It’s not just the small towns, either. Yakima last year completed a lengthy police chief search and Capt. Greg Copeland, the interim replacement, declined to put in for the position.
It’s nothing new. A Google search yields news articles and police newsletters complaining about police chief turnover and vacancies back to at least 1994. Mayors and city managers throughout the nation struggle to find the right cop to fill what some experts consider their most important appointment at City Hall.
City officials are hesitant, too. Both Prosser and Sunnyside have gone through two rounds of applicants looking for the right candidates, while Union Gap plans to hire a city manager first.
Prosser, however, has extended an offer to an out-of-state candidate.
“It’s very important we get this right,” said Prosser Mayor Paul Warden. “I’m not going to hire somebody just to fill the seat.”
While the searches continue, police officers may lack direction because there’s no one at the top looking at what should be done over the next several years, said Detective Rob Layman, president of the Sunnyside Police Officers Guild.
“The problem is, you have no long-term plan,” he said.
Even personalities make a difference.
“If they came from a Mayberry ... their philosophy on fighting gangs is going to be a lot different than if they came from South Central Los Angeles as a lieutenant,” Layman said.
Quite often, experienced cops simply don’t want the job.
Guesses are all the experts can offer — political headaches, short tenures, a possible pay cut and, in Washington, a quirky pension system.
“All they are is theories,” said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The organization sometimes contracts with cities for chief searches.
Some blame a generation that doesn’t crave responsibility for its own sake. Others point to political, public and union pressures that — while they aren’t new — escalate in a matter of minutes through social media.
“The outside pressures and the political pressures are much greater than they were 10 years ago,” Barker said.
Meanwhile, chiefs don’t last long in any one place.
Usually unprotected by a union contract or civil service rules, chiefs have an average tenure of less than three years, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“This has always, in my mind, been a problem,” said Frank Sweet, interim city manager of Sunnyside. “I shouldn’t say problem; it’s always been a challenge.”
During Sweet’s 19 years as the city supervisor in Selah, he worked with four different chiefs, all hired by mayors in the strong-mayor city.
The people hiring chiefs sometimes don’t last much longer. City manager tenures average seven years, while mayors usually face re-election every four years.
Copeland, the Yakima captain who served as interim chief for more than a year, declined to comment for this story but told the Yakima Herald-Republic in December 2011 he did not want to risk a short tenure. Yakima hired Dominic Rizzi Jr. as chief last March.
Counterintuitively, taking a chief’s position can mean a pay cut. Base salaries for captains in Yakima are higher than the salary range posted by the city of Prosser for its new chief, according to survey results by the Association of Washington Cities. Even within departments, overtime allows union represented employees such as sergeants to make more than their boss.
That pay cut could affect the rest of a new chief’s life. In Washington, pensions are calculated on the last consecutive five years of full-time work. If an older cop ends his career with a chief’s salary below that of his previous position, he receives lower pay throughout retirement.
Most likely, all the reasons combine to explain the reluctance.
“I don’t think you’re looking at one thing,” said Cobb, a 14-year veteran at Union Gap.
Personally speaking, Cobb has not ruled out taking a chief’s post someday in Union Gap or anywhere. He’s just not ready for the desk work, he said.
“It’s not political for me,” he said. “It’s simply that I’m 40 years old; I got a lot of good police work left in me before I become strictly an administrator.”
Cobb, a four-year sergeant, has been filling in as interim chief for 13 of the past 24 months.
“I just look forward to being back out on the street at this point in my career,” Cobb said.
He has a few more months at least to wait. Union Gap Mayor Roger Wentz said the city’s priority now is to hire its first city manager and let the manager pick a new chief.
Schenck, who grew up in Sunnyside, has spent his entire 23-year law enforcement career there, and for a long time had wanted to become the city’s chief. He said he loves the challenges of leadership, recalling that when he was hired on Sept. 14, 1989, he told then-Chief Wally Anderson, “Chief, I want your job someday.”
But Schenck did not apply for the vacancy after Ed Radder retired last March. He declined to say why and repeatedly sang the praises of the city and its police force.
“Sunnyside has treated me well and Sunnyside is a great community and Sunnyside is a great department,” he said.
His political surroundings are unmistakable, however. His boss, Sweet — himself an interim manager — is charged in Yakima County Superior Court with stealing and destroying public documents on the last days of his previous job as Selah’s city supervisor. Sweet has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, the city has had five managers who were supposed to be permanent since 1998, with three of them serving less than two years.
Schenck has applied for chief openings in other cities, Prosser among them. The father of three said he is shopping carefully for a politically stable city where the previous chief left on good terms and where Schenck could remain at least five or six years.
“I want to know I would stay employed,” he said.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.