On a shelf in Chief Jeff Halstead’s office sits a black rhino, a gift from one of his executive staff.
“That is the perfect symbol of being a police chief,” Halstead explains. “Your skin has to be literally thick enough to withstand any attack — front, side, or from the back — and you have to be ready to defend and not be … knocked over because the criticism is daily in this job.”
Halstead, who announced Tuesday that he will be stepping down as police chief, knows criticism well.
Within months of taking on the role as Fort Worth’s top cop six years ago, the Taser-related death of a mentally challenged man, Michael Jacobs, gave him his first real taste of the negativity that comes with the job.
A steady barrage of difficult situations would follow:
• A controversial bar check at the Rainbow Lounge, a gay bar, that led to international coverage and protests in the streets.
• An overtime scandal that led to the indictment of eight officers but in which state charges were later dismissed.
• A 72-year-old retiree shot dead by police who had responded to the wrong house on an burglary alarm call.
• And, most recently, the call for his firing from a minority law enforcement group over allegations of racial disparity within the department.
Still, Halstead is adamant that the controversies did not led to his decision to retire from law enforcement effective in January. Instead, he said they have given him the experience and knowledge to move forward in a consulting business to help other police departments and communities.
“The pace of this job is non-stop,” Halstead said in an interview with the Star-Telegram on Tuesday morning. “Even though you do have a day off, crime never takes a minute off. The headlines after headlines after headlines can be extremely exhausting. As a very powerful person in Fort Worth told me, your job is juggling chainsaws and if you still have both hands, it’s a good time to leave.”
Assistant Chief Rhonda Robertson is expected to be named interim chief upon Halstead’s departure on Jan. 9.
Halstead said he is recommending that city officials launch a national search before naming his permanent predecessor.
“It’s not because they don’t have incredible leaders internally,” Halstead said. “I hand-picked and hand-selected every one of these. I know their character and I know their qualities and they’re extremely strong. I think you need to test their character as well as their leadership across a very broad spectrum of police leaders to prove that you did your due diligence to the tax payers and you looked all across the U.S..
“If it’s an internal candidate, that’s outstanding,” he added. “That’s a great thing for the city, but you did your due diligence to make sure you did the right thing.”
Accomplishments and regrets
Halstead described his time as the Fort Worth chief as his “dream job.”
“I came in here with some very legendary figures — Thomas Windham and Ralph Mendoza — and now here comes this Phoenix guy with all of these big ideas and his vision and no money,” Halstead said. “I think I’m most proud that without adding hardly any resources but facing six straight years of budget cuts, crime went down over 21 percent. That didn’t happen anywhere else in the United States. We did it together.”
“… We completed our mission six years straight. Every single year there was crime reduction and we didn’t add people yet the city grew by over 180,000 residents,” he added.
Halstead said his biggest regret is that he won’t be there when the department’s Public Saftey Training Center at 505 W. Felix St. opens in March.
“That was my passion for over five years,” Halstead said. “When I first talked to Mayor [Mike] Moncrief about what I wanted to accomplish, or my legacy, the men and women of this organization deserve the state of the art, and probably one of the best training centers in the nation, and I told him I was going to build it. He thought I was crazy. We have budget cuts. We have no land. We have no opportunity but that was my passion.”
During his tenure, Halstead had to tackle repeated arrests of officers, including a spate of alcohol-related incidents. He created a special investigation unit in 2009 to look into alleged wrong-doing by officers.
Some applauded the chief for cleaning house. Others alleged he was treating minority officers differently in his discipline.
Halstead said he has been hurt by comments criticizing his character or leadership, and by those accusing him of disciplining officers differently depending on their race.
“I base decisions on discipline on the level of violation against the ethics of this profession,” he said. “I absolutely have never, ever generated a racially-motivated cause for discipline.”
Halstead said he had been considering beginning a consulting business for about a year after several departments and cities began to reach out to him for advice on issues ranging form labor management relations to handling discipline.
Halstead said he learned lessons from each controversy he has faced, including the police shooting of Woodhaven resident Jerry Waller, for which the threat of civil litigation still hangs over the city. A grand jury declined to indict the officer, R.A. “Alex Hoeppner in the highly-publicized shooting that Halstead had said was justified.
“… Looking at that, I should have talked immediately,” Halstead acknowledged. “The challenges of this job is when you talk quickly without all the facts, you’re going to pay the price later on whether it’s in a lawsuit, whether it’s information that comes later in the investigation and now you look like you’re hiding stuff or releasing bad information.”
Halstead said he hopes to assist other police chiefs in adapting to a world where information is dispersed within minutes through the news and social media.
“We have to change immediately,” Halstead said. “We have to respond factually within minutes, instead of within days. I’m trying to harness a leadership style that will benefit other chiefs because what I learned from all of these challenges is waiting for the facts so you can send out a statement is not what the community expects of today’s police chief.”
“You cannot put another person up [to] start talking for it because there is only one person who wears the stars,” he said.
Halstead he’s believes he’s accomplished most of the goals he’d set out to in his five-year plan and is leaving the department in good shape.
“In this business, I think a lot of chiefs stay too long,” Halstead said. “I am so proud of everything we’ve accomplished here. I think it was a good time to consider another career path for me.”
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655