• J.R. Lonsway

Traveling Chiefs

I'm not a fan of Traveling Chiefs, those individuals that served a police career in one department and endeavor to continue their service by heading up an agency in another jurisdiction. Often, they were not police chiefs in the department from which they retired, many not even on the command staff (chief, assistant chief, deputy chief) yet they proclaim an unequaled level of knowledge and expertise when pedaling their professional wares via curriculum vitae.


From 1997-99 the LCPD had a New Yorker at the helm. He was the first outside chief ever hired by the city, retired out of Rochester PD and brought to us via the Everett, Massachusetts, police department, where he had been chief for five years. In his first six months he seemed like a breath of fresh air. He established a long overdue professional standards unit, something many of us in LCPD had been advocating for years (previously, internal affairs complaints against officers were investigated by their supervisors). I was a lieutenant at the time and he appointed me as the first commanding officer of PSU, which involved development of written policy and establishing guidelines that fell within the Peace Officers Bill of Rights. It was a great experience for me and I learned a lot. I recommended to the chief that each lieutenant in the LCPD serve one year in the position on a rotation basis. Shortly after, he promoted me to deputy chief and another lieutenant took over the slot. We were progressing from a department that had been in the same rut for years into an organization that was moving forward in a positive manner.


And then the facade began to crack.


This chief would openly badmouth the professional capabilities of LCPD officers to members of city staff and city council. I know because I was there to hear it. In one instance he was speaking about a homicide investigation and said that detectives in LCPD didn't know jack about investigation of murder. After that meeting I asked him why he made those comments. He said that he based them on his experiences in Rochester and compared what he witnessed there to Las Cruces. I told him that what he said about LCPD was not true. I told him that I had witnessed firsthand the professional capabilities of detectives involved in the ongoing murder investigation and that they were quite good at their jobs. I told him it served no one any amount of good, especially a police chief, to speak poorly of his own officers. Besides, I pointed out, he had never been a detective himself.


Things went from bad to worse over the next two years. How? The guy was a sociopathic liar. He went on two business trips, one to Nashville and the other to Salt Lake City. When he returned from the Nashville trip he told anyone willing to listen that he had met Dolly Parton in a bar and she had invited him back to her place (because that's what celebrities do, right? They cruise bars looking for psycho losers to bring home and entertain). After his Salt Lake City adventure he claimed to have met Karl Malone, the basketball legend, in a bar and, of course, Malone invited him to his house and he spent the night there.


Depending on who was in his office he had served as a Navy Seal, Army green beret, or Marine Corps force recon in Vietnam. He was a highly decorated combat veteran but humble, as he was quick to point out when he conveyed the story about turning down the Medal of Honor. I asked him once, after he proclaimed to being a U.S. Marine and because I had served in the Corps, what his MOS was. He gave me a blank look. "What's that?" he asked. I said to him, "You served in the Marine Corps and you don't know what an MOS is?" He shrugged. "It's been a long time since I served, that's probably a term that came along after I got out." I asked him where he went to boot camp. He pursed his lips and scrunched his eyebrows together, looking up at the ceiling as he contemplated the question. "North Carolina?" I nodded. "Yeah, North Carolina." Anybody that served knows that there are two bootcamps, San Diego and Parris Island, South Carolina. Turns out that the former chief had actually served in the military: he was a clerk typist in the Air Force.


Things were so bad under his command that I witnessed something I had never seen: All twenty-seven supervisors, sergeants and lieutenants, signed a written complaint of no confidence against him and presented that to the city manager. The city manager called for a meeting with the supervisors with the chief present. Complaints were aired. Evidence of his mental and emotional instability were presented. Nothing was done. Several months later the chief's contract ended (as did the city manager's) and LCPD moved forward from there.


In the year 2000, representatives of the city of Alamogordo asked for a command level representative from LCPD to participate in a panel to select a new police chief. I served on that panel. Among candidates interviewed were Alamo cops, a former Alamo chief, and others from outside the department. The outgoing chief was a Traveling Chief, and his contract was up. After all candidates had been interviewed, a roundtable discussion was held to pick the new chief. When it got around to me I told them how LCPD had paid the price of having an outside candidate for chief.


I told the panel that unless their department was so corrupt, mismanaged, or incompetent, they would be better served with a command level officer from within. The advantage to that type of chief is that he knows his people and their capabilities, he knows his community and the representatives within it, and he has a vested interest in a department he has "grown up" in. Apparently they agreed because we all nominated the same person for the position, and he worked out quite well for the city.


Now, Las Cruces is at a crossroads. Patrick Gallagher has resigned from LCPD and good riddance. Any chief who authorizes a use of force technique and then terminates an officer for using it because the suspect died, and does not come forward publicly to profess accountability and accept responsibility for that officer's actions is not a leader. He's just another outsider filling a slot for a paycheck.


In these politically charged times the temptation will be to select someone that fits a profile based on ethnicity, gender, or other stereotype that carries a "feel good" narrative to suit the current atmosphere. I hope this doesn't happen. LCPD has qualified individuals within it who are professional, capable, competent, and qualified to take the department into the future. They know their officers, their community, and they know the commitment it is going to take to show the public that LCPD is transparent and fair. The position requires a leader, not someone from the outside who doesn't know the culture or the people but looks golden on a resumé.


J.R. Lonsway served 22 years with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department and retired as a Deputy Chief of Police. After retirement he served with the U.S. Department of State as a police advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and South Sudan. He is a former U.S. Marine.

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