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Calming the Waters

As Canton searches for a new police chief, the agency's interim leader said he wants to get officers back to what they do best: Serving the public.

, the interim chief of the , inherited an agency at a crossroads.

Its in the wake of the city's biggest murder. A exposed an investigation beset by leadership failures, confusion, policy violations and other critical errors.

Chief Jeff Lance, Vande Zande's former boss, resigned. Depending on who you ask, he was .

The city charged Vande Zande with, as he puts it, getting "this ship leveled out" until a permanent replacement can be named. The deadline to apply for police chief is Friday. Vande Zande, 44, said he wants the job.

In his first days as interim chief, he moved personnel out of what he called unnecessary assignments. He moved one lieutenant who oversaw front desk administration to uniform patrol. Instead of one lieutenant and four sergeants, the agency now has two lieutenants and four sergeants.

"That way," Vande Zande said, "in the event that the supervisor on one of the four shifts that we have needs to be out for some reason, I have a command staff officer available to be on scene immediately to address the needs of the incident according to whatever policy we have regarding that particular incident."

He also contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as well as A Child Is Missing to obtain checklists that will aid investigators the next time a missing child case lands in the agency's lap.

"I don’t think anyone should worry about our next response," he said.

Vande Zande recently sat down with Canton-Sixes Patch. This is what he had to say, in his own words.

• • •

"Well, I think basically what we’ve had going on for the last 50 or 60 days has inevitably taken its toll not just on the morale here, but on the overall health of the organization. And it’s been somewhat similar to that of a tsunami where without any warning, this tragic event occurs. You scramble to adapt to the changing of the environment. You try to get everything done. And then get your personnel up to speed, and then before you know it, the event is over. And that’s sort of similar to what happened here and all you’re left with are the remnants of what was once a healthy organization. Now we have to deal with some negative publicity as a result of this. The audit report didn’t bode too well for us and so now we’re in the process of rebuilding just like persons affected by any kind of disaster. We’re in the process now of rebuilding and that’s what our focus is.

"My position in regards to the audit itself is that I think that the audit pointed out some organizational failures and some leadership failures that we need to address and that we’re in the process of addressing. I believe that the primary criticism with the audit was that there was a general lack of leadership on the part of this department and I think that the prior chief, Chief Jeff Lance, whether he agreed or disagreed with the audit, realized that when it’s a leadership issue that’s called into question, it’s up to the leader to decide what the best course of action is in order to address those concerns. And I think that it was his feeling that the best course of action would be to resign and allow the city to move forward in selecting a new chief who could provide leadership that the city felt it needed.

"I don’t believe there was any sense of naïve(te) on the part of the first responding officers or the officers that responded subsequent to the request for more assistance. I think what happened was this community experienced something that was very rare in law enforcement and I guess what bothers us the most is that we probably did lose a great deal of respect from the community. I’m sure you’re aware that, at least twice a year, we try to host a Citizens Police Academy, and during that Citizens Police Academy, one of the main goals is to enlighten those attendees as to what sort of limitations exist when you place your trust in public safety.

"One of the things that I make it clear to them is that there’s 25,000 people here in the city of Canton. We have approximately 43 or 44 police officers. The math works out to about one police officer for every 500-and-something persons in this city. That speaks volumes as to our ability to protect anyone as an individual.

"Obviously, our general, our primary focus is to provide overall public safety where we feel that the greatest impact on public safety can occur. To that extent, we maintain policies that have been vetted by the state certification committee, the state certification board. We’re one of only, I think, 93 police departments in the state that is state certified and we have been state certified since 1999. And that sort of sets the benchmark for us. The litmus test that we use to determine whether or not we are performing in a manner that’s consistent with generally accepted police practices is to measure our compliance with state certification standards. And since 1999, we’ve had two re-certifications on site and passed both of those successfully, the most recent being two years ago with another state certification on site coming this year, the middle of the end of this year. And so that is the benchmark by which we measure our ability to respond.

"Now the question is, 'Did we act in somewhat of a naïve sort of manner when we responded to this incident?' There was definitely a leadership failure to some degree. That’s not questionable. But we’re we prepared in a manner consistent with generally accepted police practices? And I would say that yes, we were.

"But I would say that you can only prepare to the extent that you can forsee the likelihood of any event taking place. We’re prepared to handle any sort of weather emergency that occurs, but like you saw in Alabama, to what degree can you prepare for four or five tornadoes in a singular event? It would put a strain on resources until we can get things mobilized and more resources there and I think that that’s the point that we want to make is that our initial responding personnel, to the extent and with the resources that they had, did what the policy required them to do and what we asked them. But this was such an unusual event that we required more resources than we were normally used to summoning at any one time and so it took us a little while. But once we gained momentum and once this thing got rolling and the resources we’re in place, I think the response was handled quite well with respect to the actual jobs that needed to be performed out there. And so I am quite satisfied with the report and I believe that this has been a learning experience to the extent that we’re able to better prepare ourselves in the future. We’re going to do everything that we can to do that.

"Well, overall the recommendations themselves touched on two primary issues. One it addressed some issues with policy development. And No. 2, it addressed issues regarding training. With respect to policy development, we are in the process right now of acquiring a number of different model policies from other agencies as well as the agency whose chief authored of the audit. We’ve also been in touch with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as well as A Child Is Missing, and we’ve obtained some checklists that we found would be useful and we’re in the process now of developing a policy that I think will adequately address any of the recommendations that were made with respect to policy. As far as a timeline goes, I would anticipate that that’s probably going to occur sometime, that policy should probably be implemented sometime within the next couple of weeks. That being said, I don’t think anyone should worry about our next response if that happens to occur prior to the initiation of the policy. The initiation of the policy is merely a formality. We have already had meetings with personnel and I’ve had meetings with our supervisory staff to indicate how our next response to this would be prior to our policy going into effect.

"I agree wholeheartedly with the recommendation there (as it relates to training). One of the limitations we have is that, like everything else, we have a finite amount of training funds available. Each year, we get a line item allocated to each division for training purposes and that’s to accommodate training for every individual in that unit for the entire year. That being said, what was referenced (in the audit), was training for myself and training for the investigative unit in this department. Our investigative unit has a training budget this year of $4,000, but that’s to accommodate five investigators to include one sergeant. And to date, they’ve already expended almost $2,000 of that training budget. So with three quarters of the fiscal year left to go, we have around 50 or 60 percent of the training budget remaining. We plan on actually locating training resources that will be useful to us and trying to find a way to subsidize any expense and one of the ways that we found that we may be able to do that is if we host a training event here. A lot of times what will happen is an agency can find a vendor that will provide the necessary training, allow the agency to host the training and in exchange for that, the agency receives a couple of free positions/slots in the training. So that’s one of the avenues that we’re looking at. Another one of course is grant funding, any grant funding that may be available to assist us in sending our investigators to training. But again grant monies, even public and private grant monies, are hard to find nowadays. And so, nevertheless, we’re making an effort to try to find the funds available to get the training as soon as we can. With respect to the training that was recommended for the CEO, I’m absolutely going to attend that training. I believe I have enough in my training budget to accommodate attending that.

"Well, one of the issues that the audit addressed was the lack of sufficient personnel during the first few hours of our response. And the fact that at the same time that we were having to respond to the incident itself, we were also having to still answer any calls for police service that would have normally occurred that evening. And one of the issues was that the one supervisor that was on duty was pretty much stretched as thin as he could be and still managed to get everybody where they needed to go. 

"In the last few days, I’ve done some reorganization, I’ve moved personnel out of unnecessary assignments, reassigned them to uniform patrol. I’ve taken the sworn position of lieutenant that oversaw front desk administration and reassigned that lieutenant to uniform patrol so that now instead of one lieutenant and four sergeants, I have two lieutenants and four sergeants. That way, in the event that the supervisor on one of the four shifts that we have, if that supervisor needs to be out for some reason, I have a command staff officer available to be on scene immediately to address the needs of the incident according to whatever policy we have regarding that particular incident. So basically, in addition to the policy changes that we’re making, we’ve done some organizational changes with respect to personnel and reassigning personnel where those personnel are going to be most beneficial to the needs of the community.

"I would rate the overall mood of the organization right now as optimistic despite what happened and the beating that these men and women took in the press and the public. I think that they feel optimistic the impending change in leadership. Our goal now is to reinforce that through communications that indicate the city is in effect looking to find a leader who is both qualified, but that has the leadership capabilities to move the department forward and to improve morale. Change in any organization is tough. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a change of policy, a change in procedure, but a change in leadership is really tough because individuals in the organization don’t know what to expect. 

"Chief Jeff Lance has been here with this organization for 20 years. A lot of these people in a sense grew up with Chief Jeff Lance being in this agency. He started as a patrolman here and he went up through the ranks and he made chief and so there’s a great deal of nervousness on the part of the staff here. Although they know me and they know that my primary goal is to look out for the best interest in this organization, they don’t know me in the capacity of being the full-time chief. And so I have to make sure that any decision that I make goes with the philosophy of making sure that the decision is first and foremost in the best interest of the organization overall, but that I do have an ear for any grievances and any concerns that they might have. To the extent that I can address those, I will address those.

"Once we get this policy developed, I guess my goal that the city manager has for me is to get this ship leveled out, to get this organization back in calm waters and get people back to what they do best and that’s serve the public. And I think that once we get in calmer waters and things settle down here, my focus will be on keeping things steady until they select a new chief. And whomever that is will hopefully inherit this organization in a much calmer manner than I inherited it obviously, but hopefully the organization itself will be prepared to accept this new chief, whoever he or she is, without as much apprehension because I don’t have any plans on making any significant change that another chief would come in and decide that he or she wants to change again. And so, that being said, I think what we want to do is prepare the organization to accept whoever the next chief is and in the meantime, work on making sure that the public does realize that we are—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—concerned about our ability to respond when needed and that we will do everything that we possibly can to make sure that we don’t have another incident where our performance is critiqued in a negative sort of manner."

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