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Torrance Hunts for New Police Chief With Little Public Scrutiny

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The reins of power are changing hands for the first time in two decades at the Torrance Police Department, giving the city a chance to heal and reshape an agency battered by multimillion-dollar lawsuits and negative publicity.

Sometime in the next two months, the city manager will name a successor to 21-year Chief Donald E. Nash, who stepped down in June after heart problems and a public scandal.

The type of chief selected--whether insider or outsider, forceful manager or peacemaker--will demonstrate how the city wants to shape police policy. It will indicate whether city officials are satisfied with the status quo or whether they think the 70-year-old department is in need of reform.

Yet the months-long search for a chief is proceeding with little public scrutiny.

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Names of the finalists will not be made public until sometime in October. The consultant handling the search has been ordered by the city not to talk to reporters. And the city is refusing to disclose the identities of panel members charged with choosing the finalists for the job.

“I don’t want stories about this. . . . I don’t think selection processes are something that belong in a newspaper. You can talk about who’s selected when it’s done,” said William L. Ghio, the city’s civil service administrator.

Meanwhile, the number of outside candidates has shrunk rapidly in the last month, sharply increasing the odds that a current department employee will be promoted to the job.

The list of 19 applicants has been whittled to 12 semifinalists. All six candidates from within the department remain in the running. According to interviews, they are Capts. Nolan Dane, Bruce J. Randall and Jim Weyant and Lts. Robert Armstrong, Paul Nowatka and Sue Rhilinger.

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Only two outside applicants could be confirmed. Jay R. Stroh, director of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and a former police chief in Inglewood and El Segundo, said Thursday that he submitted an application.

Dennis C. Gillard, 51, bureau commander for contract law enforcement at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, confirmed that he too has applied.

The search comes amid a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Torrance’s practices in hiring women and minorities. Ghio said that only one woman remains as a candidate. He said he did not know if any minorities have applied.

The 12 semifinalists will be interviewed in coming weeks by a three-person panel made up of two police chiefs and one city manager from cities comparable in size and complexity to Torrance, Ghio said. He would not identify panel members, saying he did not want them “bothered by the newspaper.”

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The panel will choose five to nine finalists whose names will be made public, Jackson said. A chief could be named by late October or early November.

The job, which has a salary range of $78,252 to $95,112, requires a chief who will lead 238 sworn officers in the fourth-largest city in Los Angeles County, a city witnessing a gradual increase in crime and the slow encroachment of gangs.

Although Torrance has been spared national scandals like the Rodney King beating that rocked the Los Angeles Police Department, Torrance police have drawn unwelcome publicity in the last decade with a rash of lawsuits that bruised public confidence and dampened employee morale.

The most widely publicized case involved the 1984 death of Kelly Rastello, 19, who died in a traffic collision with off-duty Sgt. Rollo Green. A jury determined that the Police Department had a “custom and practice” of condoning officers’ misbehavior. Torrance settled in May for $6.5 million, the largest settlement ever paid by the city.

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Last fall, the city agreed to pay more than $1.9 million to settle a suit brought by a construction worker who was shot in the neck by a Torrance officer during a 1988 traffic stop.

The city was embarrassed in 1988 when a videotape, broadcast nationwide, showed a Torrance officer holding a man in a chokehold while another officer beat him with a baton. The city settled that lawsuit for $105,000.

The department found itself in the spotlight again last spring with news that the Los Angeles County district attorney was investigating Nash for underreporting the sale price--and thus underpaying sales tax--on two used cars. Nash stepped down in June at age 66 after heart surgery; the county’s investigation is continuing.

Nash was known for hands-off management that delegated projects to his captains. Although many city officials considered him a strong leader, others criticized him for running what they said was a less-than-tight ship.

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Because he served so long, the change of command could be particularly dramatic for the department he left behind. But choosing a chief is an awesome task in any city, experts say.

“It’s the toughest decision a city manager has to make,” said William Storey, the Long Beach director of human resources who has been involved in three police chief searches. “If (the city manager) doesn’t have good leadership over there . . . that’s going to become a focal point of his administration. Police chiefs can make or break city managers.”

Despite the importance of the job, only a handful of people will be directly involved in the Torrance selection: Ghio, a consultant from Ralph Andersen & Associates in Sacramento, the three-member panel and City Manager LeRoy J. Jackson. The city manager’s selection is final and is not subject to City Council approval.

Unlike Los Angeles, the city is not planning a public hearing on qualifications for a new chief. Nor has it convened a community panel to interview the finalists, as Long Beach did several years ago. Torrance is not accustomed to making the hiring of its police chiefs a public affair. Promoting from within is a department tradition; only one of the six Torrance chiefs since the mid-1920s was chosen from outside the ranks. And even though the city has conducted a statewide search, several city officials strongly favor hiring an inside candidate.

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“There are enough qualified people within the department to choose from,” Councilman George Nakano said.

But attorney Brian Panish, who represented the Rastello family, argues that the city needs a leader with new insight. “They need somebody from outside who can bring a fresh perspective. . . . They need to examine their procedures.”

Hiring from the inside has merits and drawbacks, experts say. A insider who has risen through the ranks may suffer from “myopia,” recycling the same old ideas. But outsiders unfamiliar with the organization may be forced to rely on others for advice.

“He could get spun around in a political game for quite a while,” said Hubert Williams, a former Newark, N.J., police chief who is president of the Police Foundation in Washington.

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Cities with troubled departments frequently look outside for a new chief, said Lou Reiter, a Florida-based police consultant who testified for the Rastellos.

Many Torrance officials and police employees reject the notion that their department has problems or requires major change.

“I believe people still have the high degree of confidence in the Police Department that they had before,” said Councilman Bill Applegate, who voted against an outside search.

But some within the ranks would welcome some changes, said Detective David Nemeth, president of the Torrance Police Officers Assn: “We used to be a leader and a progressive department. . . . I think we’ve just gotten lackadaisical. We’ve had the same people in the same positions for so long, things have sort of slowed down.”

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Even so, Nemeth said, such changes could be accomplished by promoting from within. And the odds of selecting an insider appear to heavy, in part because of the small pool of statewide candidates.

Santa Monica and Irvine each received more than 70 applications for their police chief openings, compared to 19 filed in Torrance.

Some officials wonder if recent negative publicity about the department discouraged applicants from applying for a job that is considered well-paying. But the explanation could lie in the fact that Torrance simply did not look very far.

Torrance is the only one of six mid-sized California cities recently seeking chiefs that restricted its search to California; Santa Monica and Irvine looked nationwide.

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At least four City Council members say now they did not realize they were limiting the search to California when they approved the job specifications last spring; most thought the search would be national. Nevertheless, council members say they are satisfied with the way the hunt is progressing.

One view on which all sides agree is that there is no single right way to choose a chief, particularly one with the smorgasbord of attributes council members prefer: a strong manager, a reputation for professionalism, sensitivity to the community, the talent to build morale.

“We might well have that person here right now, or it might be someone from outside,” Mayor Katy Geissert said. “I just want to see the best person.”


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