Current police chief Jeri Williams announced her retirement at the beginning of May. Though she gave no specific reason for her departure, saying only that "the time feels right," she left a department embroiled in scandal and facing a major investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Williams has remained at the helm since the announcement. The city said Friday that she will continue in her role for a period to onboard the new chief. It's not clear how long that will last.
Sullivan has spent the last three years at the Baltimore Police Department — another department that, like Phoenix police, has faced investigation by the feds. For the last year, Sullivan has led the department's "compliance bureau." Before that, he worked in operations.
The bureau, which had a $38.6 million budget this year, oversees Baltimore's efforts to reform its department. After a 2015 DOJ probe found "systemic deficiencies" within Baltimore police, the city entered into a consent decree, a legal agreement to enforce these reforms, with the federal government.
The announcement from the city of Phoenix says that Sullivan will lead the Phoenix Police Department for one to two years, while the city launches a "robust nationwide search for a permanent police chief," one who provides "multiple opportunities for community involvement."
According to city of Phoenix spokesperson Ashley Patton, Sullivan starts September 12 because he "is still serving the residents of Baltimore."
He will earn the same starting salary as Williams, the city said.
"The status and timeline of the DOJ investigation and the permanent recruitment process will determine the length of" Sullivan's tenure.
Activists and community leaders have criticized the city for conducting the search for the interim chief under wraps. The city has shared little about its search process with the public, other than a strange series of tweets from Councilmember Sal DiCiccio last week. The pro-police council member chided Orlando's top cop for "putting out information that he is the new police chief [of Phoenix] when in fact he is not."
When Williams announced her retirement, city leaders said they would search for an interim replacement specifically to carry the department through the DOJ probe. The federal investigation is still in the early investigative stages, but if the city enters into a consent decree, as is likely, compliance efforts could drag on for years.
The city also promised to bring an interim chief in from outside of the department instead of hiring internally.
There is logic to the city's choice of Sullivan, an out-of-state chief who has worked in a city in the aftermath of a DOJ investigation. Per Department of Justice progress reports, the Baltimore Police Department's track record with the feds has improved during his tenure.
Before his time in Baltimore, Sullivan spent 25 years in the Louisville, Kentucky, police department, beginning as a recruit and ultimately serving as second-in-command.
That department, too, has a troubled record. The 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor by three Louisville officers placed the agency into the national spotlight. A year after her death, in 2021, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into Louisville. Four months later, the DOJ announced its probe into the Phoenix police.
Sullivan left Louisville in 2019 — before Taylor's death and the reckoning that followed. But he was in police leadership during some major scandals, including a no-confidence vote in the police chief at the time, Steve Conrad.
“In the search for an interim police chief, it was my priority to identify a leader with the qualifications to guide the department through the DOJ investigation and propel the department forward,” City Manager Jeff Barton wrote in a statement on Friday. Sullivan had those qualifications, he said.
Patton declined to specify how long Williams will remain in office, but added, "She remains flexible to serve the needs of the department during the transition."