March 12, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 11

Community & Editorial

A nationwide search for a new police chief gives Seattle an opportunity to build trust and reform

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It’s been a troubling few weeks for the Seattle Police Department (SPD). In late February, Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey said he was overturning a disciplinary action against an officer. Mayor Ed Murray said he supported Bailey. But after a public outcry, Murray admitted he was wrong. Then it was revealed that other disciplinary actions had been changed. The situation only got more complicated from there.

If these events teach us anything about SPD, it is that trust is extremely fragile and there are longstanding issues around process and procedure that still need to be fixed.  As we begin a national search for a new police chief, we search for a broad agreement about the direction we need to go and how to get there.

This has not always been the case. There was no broad mandate for police reform in 2007, when I served on a blue-ribbon commission appointed by then-Mayor Greg Nickels to examine police accountability.  Our panel came up with a list of 29 recommendations, most of which were implemented.  Unfortunately, some of the thorniest issues — such as use of force, biased policing policies and the process for the Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates cases of police misconduct — were never resolved. Recommendations for those were never implemented.

Today, we are in a very different place. Here’s why:

• A Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree, instituted in July 2012, has validated decades of community complaints. No longer is there debate about whether we need to reform policies and practices — just how to do so.

• The cooperation of the U.S. Attorney’s office, the city attorney’s office, Murray and the Seattle City Council makes a strong political statement about the need to end in-fighting about substance or politics. Last month’s events reveal the cracks and fissures but also should increase the resolve to create change.

•  The community police commission, set up under the consent decree, creates a process for community input and recommendations to be included in any future reforms. The consent mandates that not only must Seattle implement changes but also that the DOJ will stay involved for two years after changes are implemented. 

• The Seattle Police Officers Guild has a new president, Ron Smith, who says he wants reform. We should hold him accountable. The general consensus is that most police officers are smart, dedicated people who joined because they wanted to serve. Today, the morale of SPD, from all accounts, is at an all-time low.  Many officers I’ve spoken to ache for permanent leadership. 

• Community members and police officers agree that if we want meaningful reform, we must change policies, procedures and culture.  Leadership up and down the chain of command will be essential. We need to re-examine what we have in place and throw out what doesn’t work. 

This is the environment in which our police chief search is taking place.  Former County Executive Ron Sims and I act as co-chairs for two committees. The larger community advisory committee has held the last of seven community forums and will review and provide input on criteria for the next chief.  This work is and will continue to feed into the smaller search committee process that has just begun. This second committee will provide the mayor with recommendations for three top candidates.

This time around, we have all the building blocks in place for real reform.We have a majority of Seattle police officers ready to follow a leader who wants to bring back respect and support in the work that they do. We have an engaged community.

We have a mayor who has made police reform a centerpiece of his administration — and will have to deliver to be re-elected. 

And perhaps most important, we have a DOJ that won’t leave Seattle until it is satisfied we have reform.

Now, all we need is the right police chief:  a man or woman of tremendous integrity who is ready to lead; is comfortable in front of officers, the community and the media; has a laser-like focus on what is good for Seattle; and will do what is needed to institute a real culture change. I believe there are candidates across the country who will see this as the opportunity of a lifetime. We are ready for them to apply. 

Let’s move forward and create a world-class police department — together.

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