When Mayor Mike McGinn soon gets down to picking a police chief, he will face a decision that could do a lot to establish how much of a mark he will leave on the city. He might do well to borrow a page, or all the pages, from a book that has received significant local attention through a likely rival, City Councilman Tim Burgess.
So far, the city's search for a police chief has played out quietly. But it will gain greater visibility when a search committee interviews begins interviews of the current field of nine candidates on Saturday (May 8). By the middle of next week, the committee is expected to name three finalists for the mayor to consider.
The mayor's veto of a Seattle City Council measure on aggressive panhandling — sponsored by Burgess — may have loaded the selection of a chief with the potential for political trouble. If the council thinks it can make McGinn's choice look like a poor one, the confirmation hearings of the new chief could be an early opportunity to give the mayor some political payback.
The selection, though, offers McGinn plenty of upside personally and politically, especially if he makes the kind of appointment that looks too smart for the council to challenge seriously and a new chief ends up serving the city well. For a city that needs to control its budget, would like to improve current levels of public safety, and would certainly prefer to lead people to productive lives rather than tossing more of them in prison, McGinn has a promising guide for the next police chief in the ideas on police and crime advanced by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, whom Burgess spent a couple days last month escorting around town.
Politically, McGinn has no good reason to do anything that validates the work of Burgess, considered a possible mayoral candidate in 2013. Plus, beyond avoiding an embarrassment, McGinn doesn't necessarily have a lot of incentive at the moment to concentrate on his choice of a chief. McGinn came to office on the basis of strong support as an environmental candidate, and he has been scoring points with much of that group by his high-profile challenging of car-oriented parts of major transportation projects.
His veto of the panhandling restrictions only solidified his position with other liberal leadership groups, especially in social-justice and ACLU circles. Unless McGinn thinks he actually might end up gaining support from businesses and downtown interests, where much of the talk about crime and aggressive panhandling originated, he has little political reason to care what they think about his pick of a police chief.
Yet, let's suppose McGinn's actions so far on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Highway 520 bridge replacement projects have much more to do with a sense of environmental mission than with politics and solidifying his base. Then, it's possible to believe the mayor, while still likely to focus a great deal of his attention on the environment, could also look at other issues from a perspective that transcends politics and concentrates on what is best for the city's long-term future.
Burgess helped bring Kleiman here to talk about the rather remarkable set of ideas on policing, crime control, and incarceration, laid out in Kleiman's recent book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton University Press). In it, Kleiman conducts a broad survey of research on what works in reducing crime, what is most cost-effective, and how offenders actually respond to police, courts, and the corrections system. Then he concludes the book with a credible, wide-ranging, even holistic agenda for achieving the twin miracle of reducing crime and jailing far fewer people (in this most incarceration-happy of nations).
Kleiman strikes notes that ought to appeal to a very broad spectrum. He is at once passionate about the concerns of minority communities (and liberals like McGinn's core supporters) about the scandalous and disproportionate incarceration rates and about the needs for all neighborhoods to maintain orderly, safe streets.
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