The City of Ketchikan is offering the job of police chief to a New Orleans police commander. Some members of the City Council expressed reservations about passing over local officers for the top job at the police department.
Ketchikan’s police department lost its police chief of four years when Joe White retired in June. Born and raised in Ketchikan, White rose through the ranks over a quarter-century career at the Ketchikan Police Department.
Now, the city is looking to an experienced outsider to take over as police chief.
Originally from a small town in Alabama, Cmdr. Jeff Walls joined the New Orleans Police Department in 1997. He worked his way up from a patrol officer to detective and eventually commander, according to his resume. He’s overseen three major New Orleans neighborhoods, most recently commanding a district that includes the French Quarter and the Big Easy’s famed Bourbon Street.
In his job application, Walls said community relations and ethical policing were among his top priorities.
Walls would be the first chief hired from outside Ketchikan’s police ranks for more than a decade. That came up at Thursday’s City Council meeting, when Council Member Riley Gass said the city already has qualified officers with leadership experience.
“We have someone who has college experience in criminal justice, who has worked with our department in our town from here for 20 and a half years and counting, who was involved with us, who, to my knowledge, has a flawless record, who has done everything I could think of that a person could do to move up over the years through the ranks,” Gass said.
Gass didn’t name names. But city officials confirmed that at least three of the initial 31 job candidates were internal applicants. (One later withdrew.)
Gass says he has concerns that bringing in a police chief from Outside might not be well-received within the department.
“I just genuinely hope that it doesn’t create big morale problems when our guys who feel that — and I would say, I feel — (they) have been doing a diligent job are passed up,” Gass said.
Acting City Manager Lacey Simpson responded that bringing in a veteran lawman could help groom Ketchikan’s officers for more senior roles down the line.
“Frankly, that’s one of the reasons that the committee was enthusiastic about the appointment of Jeff Walls, because he has that experience in mentoring and growing people within his department and encouraging future leaders,” she said.
The committee she refers to is the screening committee tasked to review police chief applicants. Simpson, the city’s HR manager, the acting police chief and the public works director sat on the committee, according to the city.
Simpson suggested the City Council could create an apprenticeship or mentorship program to prepare internal candidates to take over for retirees, but she said there isn’t currently one in place for the police department.
Council Member Abby Bradberry said that should be a priority for the city.
“We need to get a training program in play. But we also need to fill these gaps — we need bodies. I mean, we heard a presentation from the police department, they need bodies and they need experienced bodies,” Bradberry said.
City Council Member Janalee Gage asked whether Simpson had any concerns about Walls’ record. He was named in a 2006 lawsuit filed after he and two other officers shot and killed a Black man in New Orleans. He was a sergeant at the time.
“Ketchikan has their lawsuits too,” Gage said. “So when we think about 25 years of experience, did you have any red flags with this?”
Attorneys for the city of New Orleans argued the man had threatened police with a knife before he was killed. The man’s family said the shooting was an unprovoked and excessive use of deadly force. The city later settled out of court and paid $200,000 to the family, according to press reports at the time.
Simpson said Walls had undergone both a polygraph and a psychological exam that revealed no red flags about his personality or his character.
Ketchikan’s police chiefs aren’t political appointees. They’re hired by the city manager. But in this case, the city council was asked to give the green light because the $132,000 salary offered exceeded the city’s cap for new hires.
(City records show the previous police chief earned $145,000 when he retired after 25 years with the department.)
City Council Member Mark Flora defended the city manager’s recommendation of recruiting a qualified police veteran from the Lower 48.
“Nine of 17 of our department heads are not local. When I moved here, I wasn’t local,” he said. “I don’t know everybody’s background, but I’m guessing there’s a few City Council people here that weren’t local until they were, right? So it’s kind of a subjective standard in and of itself, if you look at that in isolation.”
And Flora cautioned members of the city council from micromanaging personnel decisions.
“The voters elect us to represent them. We hire the city manager, the city manager hires staff. If folks don’t like that, they should fire us,” he said.
In the end, the council approved offering the job and $132,000 salary to Jeff Walls. The vote was 5-2 with Gass and Council Member Jai Mahtani dissenting. If he accepts the offer, Simpson said he could start training as soon as February.
KRBD reached out to Jeff Walls for an interview twice this week.
Disclosure: City Council Member Jai Mahtani also serves on KRBD’s nonprofit board of directors. The board does not direct news coverage.
This story has been updated with additional information.