SIX MONTHS AFTER an apparently exhaustive nationwide search, Mayor Paul Schell appointed Gil Kerlikowske as Seattle's new police chief. Our city leaders and daily newspapers immediately approved of Schell's decision--the July 22 P.I. hyped the 50-year-old Justice Department official as "a savvy schmoozer with national contacts, an ambitious detail man with a soft spot for children, a workaholic with a history of 70-hour weeks and a record that reflects the Midas touch." The other major candidate for the position, Madison Police Department Chief Richard Williams, was politely dismissed. Kerlikowske, officials assert, is a "better fit" for Seattle.

City Hall is clearly satisfied with itself. But what does the public think? Nobody really knows. Despite all the rhetoric, the citizens of Seattle weren't given the chance to contribute in a substantive way.

Seattle's passion for "the process" was, once again, ass-backward. At the start, a search committee held public forums to find out what people wanted in their next top cop, but few bothered to show up--primarily because nobody wanted to waste their time talking in generalities about a candidate who didn't yet exist. People had opinions, but they wanted some applicants they could see, hear, and compare.

A few weeks ago, the city finally presented its three candidates to the city. When it did so, it gave the public one chance to size up the top candidates. Unfortunately, the council blew it, squandering the public's golden opportunity with an array of generic, open-ended, and unenlightened queries. In both format and substance, the meeting failed to reveal anything about the candidates beyond superficial personality traits.

At best, the council's Q&A format narrowed the field of candidates from three to two. William McManus, the paramilitaristic assistant police chief from our nation's capital, took himself out of the running. McManus made the ludicrous assertion that racism within Washington D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department doesn't really exist, because most D.C. cops are black. Schell, already beleaguered in the aftermath of the police shooting of David Walker, would have been insane to have chosen this D.C. cop.

But both Kerlikowske and Williams did well during the Q&A session. Kerlikowske was smooth and polished, delighting council members by telling them that he visited a Seattle homeless shelter "instead of the Space Needle" when he came to town. Southern-born Williams displayed a Clintonesque folksiness by weaving personal anecdotes into almost every reply, making his answers considerably longer than Kerlikowske's.

The questions posed by the council members gave too much room for the candidates to maneuver, and much got lost in the wide-open spaces. In short, the Q&A process didn't cut through the charm to the substance. Our elected officials should have acted like well-prepped trial lawyers who know the answers before they're given. After all, the answers aren't for them, but for the benefit of the jury, otherwise known as the public. A perfect example of the process' shortcomings occurred after Council Member Heidi Wills asked the three candidates how they would address the issue of domestic violence. Our winning candidate, Kerlikowske, was able to exploit the flimsy process.

Wills gave high marks to Kerlikowske's response. He waxed eloquent about the research he's done on domestic violence, and talked about "changing the culture" among police officers when dealing with the issue in officers' personal lives.

Wills was not pleased with Williams' response. After some aimless rambling, he said the Madison Police Department has a "commitment that almost borders on excessive." "[His answer] raised an alarm in our heads," says Wills, who considers spousal abuse to be a top priority for the SPD. How, Wills wanted to know, could a department be "excessively committed" to this issue?

But if you look at the facts, you'll see that Wills got a snow job. There's no evidence that Kerlikowske's done anything about domestic violence except read about it and talk about it. Buffalo's police union president Robert P. Meegan Jr. recalls many innovations Kerlikowske initiated when he served as that city's police commissioner. Meegan, however, doesn't recall Kerlikowske doing anything to stress domestic violence issues. Kerlikowske, it may be noted, started his tenure as Buffalo's police commissioner around the same time that the O. J. Simpson case was allegedly raising national awareness of spousal abuse.

In fact, according to the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, it is Williams' Madison Police Department that actually leads the nation in its model to combat spousal abuse. True, the programs Madison uses were in place before Williams took the reins, but he hasn't done anything to diminish those established policies.

Wills wasn't the only council member who let the candidates waltz through the process. Peter Steinbrueck started things off with "What does fairness mean to you?" Kerlikowske opined that, "I think it's all about how you treat people." Judy Nicastro followed up with "How would you handle a racially charged incident in Seattle?" The winning Kerlikowske dutifully replied that racial controversies are "very, very difficult." The police chief, he said, "is accountable and has to be in front of the microphone." Wow.

How, exactly, did Steinbrueck and Nicastro expect the candidates to respond to their questions? The council members should have come up with questions that might have helped educate the public about the candidates. Instead, some questions suggested that the council members had not even glanced at the candidates' resumes during their early-morning commute.

No one asked any questions that might have squarely challenged the candidates on their records. A database search, for example, turned up this item in Buffalo Business First: "There seems to be a growing tension between the Buffalo Police Department and the people it protects and serves," the paper noted in February 1998. At the time, a strained budget was forcing the department to do more with less. "Some activists have called for [Kerlikowkse's] resignation. The commissioner must now act boldly to restore confidence in the department." Why didn't any council members press him on specifics about problems like this? Kerlikowske says he likes accountability, but none of our council members called him on it.

Kerlikowske may very well turn out to be a good police chief, but most agree that Williams could probably do a decent job in Seattle, too, had he been selected. If our new chief screws up, we'll know who to blame.

Amy Jenniges contributed to this report.