City taking deliberate approach to hiring next police chief

By Eric Gorton, contributor

The city’s next police chief needs to be community oriented to continue the success started by former Chief Eric English, said Michael Parks, the city’s director of communications, in a telephone interview.

The start of that search is close, Parks said ­– but there’s no telling how long it will take.

“The police chief for the City of Harrisonburg is a vital position, not only because they lead a department of some 115 officers or more, but a person in this position has to be a community leader, they have to be active in the community, they have to be someone that people are familiar with and that they trust and that they know has their concerns at heart,” Parks said.

So far, the city has completed a recruitment brochure and is putting the finishing touches on the job advertisement, which will appear on the city’s website among other places.

The city will again get help developing a national field of candidates from The Novack Consulting Group, a consulting firm from Ohio that the city hired in the search to replace Stephen Monticelli, who resigned in 2017 after five years on the job. English was hired in September 2018 but left last fall, after being hired away by his hometown police department in Henrico County.

Until a new chief is selected, Parks said, the police department remains in good hands with interim chief Gabriel Camacho.

Interim Chief Gabriel Camacho

“There’s not been a drop-off whatsoever from Chief English to Chief Camacho. He’s obviously very committed to the community as well. I think that’s what we hear most often when people mention him, is how effectively and efficiently he stepped into that role as a community leader.”

Camacho told The Citizen in September that he plans to apply for the job. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story by press time. Before coming to Harrisonburg as the deputy police chief in December 2019, Camacho spent 25 years in law enforcement in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey.

Parks said the department has taken great strides over the last year to increase transparency and to create citizen community groups that can give advice. It also gained accreditation through the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission, something that will need to be maintained.

“You can’t just sit back on your laurels and say, ‘It’s done. We’re good now.’ You have to keep moving forward or you’ll lose that accreditation. We need someone who is comfortable with that,” he said.

File photo courtesy of Harrisonburg Police Department

In addition to being community oriented, the next chief also needs to be comfortable making changes when necessary.

“We need someone who is not afraid to come in and say, ‘Here’s some things I think we can do differently, we need to focus on these things,’” Parks said.

The benefit of using a search firm, Parks said, is getting the job advertisement in front of the right kinds of candidates.

“Also, a search firm like this has worked with candidates to get them in positions for years. They may have candidates that they’ve worked with to get into deputy chief positions in cities and they know are ready to take that next step to a chief role,” Parks said.

Amassing a pool of candidates from across the country does not necessarily mean the city is looking to hire someone from far away. The city recently conducted a national search to fill its human resources manager position and found Angela Clem, the town manager of Woodstock. Clem was hired in January.

Other high-level positions have been filled from within following searches, including the director of the city’s department of transportation, Gerald Gatobu; the director of public works, Tom Hartman; and Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matthew Tobia.

“Sometimes we do this process and realize that best candidate is right here at home,” Parks said. “We want to make sure that we cast a wide net, get as many potential great candidates as possible and then ultimately we hope we have a tough decision to make at the end of the day.”

The lingering COVID-19 pandemic is making candidate searches difficult. When the time comes to interview police chief candidates, city staff will want to meet them face to face, Parks said. The staff is also contemplating ways to involve community members in the search.

As for keeping the next chief for more than two years, Parks said all he can do is hope. “We would certainly like the next police chief to be someone who is here for the long term, who puts down roots here in the community and becomes a leader in a number of different ways, not just as the police chief, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

He said he couldn’t fault English for taking a job in his hometown. “If Chief English’s dream job hadn’t come calling, I don’t think he would have left. … That is a result of the great job that he was doing here for our community and the great job that we expect the next chief to continue.”

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