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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Mayor Ballantyne reopens Somerville’s search for a new police chief

This marks the latest continuation of a process that has spanned over three years; Interim Police Chief Charlie Femino will continue to serve.

A Somerville Police Department patrol car is pictured outside SPD headquarters on Jan. 31, 2020.

At the end of January, Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne announced the resumption of the City of Somerville’s search for their next chief of police after three finalists for the position were ultimately rejected by the mayor’s office last November. The search will be led by the city’s Racial and Social Justice Department, its Human Resources Department and public-sector executive recruitment firm GovHR, which serves as the requisite external consultant to identify and certify potential candidates. This search has been ongoing since March 2020, when former Chief David Fallon announced his retirement. Interim Police Chief Charlie Femino has led the department since Fallon’s retirement took effect in December 2020.

Somerville City Councilor-at-Large Jake Wilson, a member of the Police Chief Search Committee, which selects the finalists that are ultimately submitted to the mayor and City Council for approval, expressed dismay with both the city’s inaction on this issue and the ramifications this would have for the Somerville Police Department.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating for those of us in leadership in the city, and I think especially for the men and women of the police departments, to not have a permanent leader,” Wilson said. 

Anne Gill, director of human resources for the City of Somerville and a member of the Selection Committee, was contacted by the Daily but did not provide a comment.

In an email to the Daily, a city spokesperson defended the length of the search process, attributing it to a strong commitment to finding the most qualified candidate.

“The search is continuing because we want to find the best candidate with the needed qualifications who can both maintain public safety and lead the department into the future with our City values at the forefront,” they wrote. “This is a vitally important position for the city, and we will not short-change the community by cutting the needed process short.”

The city spokesperson believes this extended process is a testament to the city’s respect for values of racial and social justice.

“Somerville’s commitment to recruiting a Police Chief who can not only deliver core public safety but also envision a new approach to Public Safety for All reflects on our community’s desire to always push harder and achieve more in our pursuit of progress,” they argued. “We want a Chief that will not just maintain the status quo but who will move us forward, and if it takes a little more time to find that person, we are the kind of community committed to doing so.”

Despite this, Councilor Wilson acknowledged the pervasive sense of anxiety felt by many Somerville residents on this issue.

“There’s some bewilderment and general unease and annoyance with the fact that we’re still looking for a police chief here, coming up on four years out from when we found out we were going to need one,” Wilson said.

However, Councilor Wilson also emphasized the accomplishments of Interim Chief Femino over the past three years.

“I want to be really clear. Charlie Femino has come in and done a phenomenal job stepping in there,” Wilson asserted. “I’m extremely grateful for him coming in. I know he’s highly respected by the rank-and-file who work under him.”

As for the logistics of the Police Chief Selection Committee, the shared responsibilities between the committee and GovHR will be carried out over a series of phases over the next several months.

“There’s an initial phase where … GovHR is off doing their thing. When they get names that are passed to us, that’s when our work really begins. There’s our first-level interviews, and then from there, similar to last time, we’ll end up with in-person interviews at some point, and then the mayor will make a decision based on that,” Wilson explained.

But the Police Chief Selection Committee has experienced a degree of turmoil since last November when two members chose to leave. Despite these developments, the city spokesperson remained optimistic.

“There were eight members of the Phase 1 Search Committee, and only two members chose not to take part in the next phase, which, overall, reflects a continued commitment from the majority of members,” they explained.

When asked what values he wanted to see reflected in Somerville’s next chief of police, Wilson cited a commitment to progressive policing.

“To me, [choosing a good police chief] means [choosing] someone who shares our community’s values about progressive policing [and] turning away from the idea of mass incarceration being a good approach, who embraces calls we hear from a wide swath of the community for alternatives to police response … and someone who’s able to really communicate effectively with the public and with the council,” Wilson shared.

Wilson also detailed the expected timeline for the committee to complete its work.

“We’re talking about a matter of months,” he said. “Not a year here. So I would like to see, ideally, this would happen in the first half of 2024.”