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Police in Seattle should embrace fed review

The ranks of the Seattle Police Department are filled with outstanding, dedicated people. But there's clearly something behind the weakening public confidence.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz City of Seattle

I served as a Seattle police officer and detective in the 1970s, admittedly a very long time ago. Policing has changed dramatically since my time on the street.  We didn't have portable radios in my first year as a patrol officer, DNA-based investigations were a figment of our imagination, and crime scene specialists were only seen on Hill Street Blues.

But, one thing I witnessed every day way back then was the dedication and commitment of police officers and detectives to serve our city with honor and distinction.  I still witness that today.  The women and men of the Seattle Police Department have half-a-million contacts with people every year; almost all of these encounters are handled professionally and we never hear a peep about them.

In fact, a recent report from the police department showed that in 2009 Seattle officers used force at a rate far below the national rate — 0.12 percent compared to 0.88 percent of all police-public encounters.  Even when these encounters resulted in an arrest, Seattle officers used force to effect the arrest in only 2.4 percent of the incidents.

But despite the reality that most of our officers do exemplary work on our behalf, something is clearly wrong.  Recent incidents have tested public confidence in our police department, to say the least. Many wonder if there is a larger, more systemic or cultural problem in the police department. It is this concern that I want to address here.

What is it that fosters a police culture of "us versus them"? What is it that prompts an officer to write in his union newspaper disparaging and very damaging words about the "enemy," a very clear reference to the elected leadership of the city? Why is it that union leaders appear incapable or unwilling to acknowledge that officers sometimes make mistakes? What have we done — as individuals and as a city government — to contribute to this cultural crisis? These questions do not have simple answers. (If you are interested in reading more about this issue, I suggest you start with the research of New York University professor Jerome Skolnick, one of the country's leading authorities on police culture.)

Seattle faces another important question: How can we respect and affirm the difficult work of our officers while creating an internal police culture that affirms the highest values of professionalism and fairness and allows the voices of our best officers to be heard loud and clear? 

Here are some practical steps and thoughts we might consider.

First, the chief of police and other commanders need to be more outspoken about the work of our officers, the good work — and the mistakes and misconduct.  Stories can be powerful tools to nurture and affirm good behavior and correct bad behavior.  This type of transparency will build public confidence and encourage the vast majority of officers who want to do the right thing and cringe when their colleagues mess up.

Second, officers of all ranks throughout the department, including union leaders, should proactively embrace the special review the Department of Justice has announced.  This review will be conducted by law enforcement officers from the federal government—experienced professionals who are committed to the highest standards in policing. Their goal is to improve the department, not embarrass it.

Third, union leaders — and all of the members — should remember that they are police officers first and foremost.  They took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and state of Washington and the Charter and ordinances of the City of Seattle.  Taking this oath isn't just some ceremonial exercise.  It means something.  It embodies the essence of what we want from our police officers — professional conduct, reverence for our constitutional protections, fair treatment of everyone. 

Fourth, first line supervisors, the sergeants and lieutenants who are on the street guiding, training, encouraging and coaching officers, need to more fully appreciate the critical responsibilities of their position.  These supervisors — second only to the mayor and the chief of police — set the parameters and tone of the policing environment.  Their words and interventions could re-set the culture almost overnight. And getting the culture right is very important. 


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 3, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Clearly, Burgess is not interested in addressing the citizenry, but ensuring his real constituency is properly stroke; and stroked they are. I'm sure all the goinsta and talksaboutits will go over nice. There might be a lot of "Remembering," along with "Hero Recognition," and the invocation of 9/11. Meanwhile, a growing element of the citizenry recognizes that the SPD holds the public in suspicion, and their "training" is a force for disruption. I'd like to know how many SPD officers actually live in the City of Seattle. It would nice to know how much Seattle tax payer revenue flows out of the City to enable "sprawl." And btw, Professionals don't cover for incompetency. Well, actually the current generation in power does. But my generation won't have that luxury.

Posted Thu, Feb 3, 5:23 p.m. Inappropriate

I will believe the SPD has been reformed when I'm convinced that the "blue wall of silence" is no more. Recall officer Shandy Cobain stomping on that Hispanic bystander, and offering to "kick the fucking Mexican piss" out of him, and then officer Mary Lynn Woollum coming up and stomping on him again. Visible injuries were inflicted on the victim.

It was all caught on video so we know what happened. But pretend for a moment that there was no camera and no witnesses, and the victim files a complaint about excessive force and rudeness. Even though there were four or five officers present, does anyone believe the truth would've come out? I'm sadly confident that they all would've covered for officers Cobain and Woollum, and the complaint inquiry would have come back "not sustained," along with some tall tale about how the victim injured himself by tripping and falling on his own.

Everyone appearing before a judge in a court of law swears to tell the truth. Officers being investigated following a citizen complaint should also be sworn. And when two or more are involved, they should be separated and questioned individually, in ways that don't enable them to coordinate their stories (i.e. make up covering lies).

Police and prosecutors are regularly stymied in criminal investigations when victims and witnesses refuse to talk, who don't "rat" on their colleagues. Police officers should look at themselves in the mirror, because too many of them will do the same thing.

Posted Fri, Feb 4, 7:31 a.m. Inappropriate

I contacted Burgess years ago about an issue (admitttedly minor) I had with the police department. I was blown off, and told people will just have to be forced to do things. He's been living off from 7 years with the police department as if he was Serpico. For being a great proponent of the police he didn't stick around very long.

sonny

Posted Fri, Feb 4, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

It is ironic that someone who works for the government and is represented by a public employees' union is complaining about creeping socialism using the words of Glen Beck.

Life really is too short to work in a job one does not like. I can't help but thinking that Officer Pomper would be more comfortable working in a private sector law enforcement position that's more suited to his values. Perhaps Blackwater is hiring.

Bob_Katz

Posted Fri, Feb 4, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with the Councilmember that "Today’s police department is staffed with many good people who do their jobs extremely well."

However, I think there's not enough specificity or substance in his recommendations, and in his summing-up "...hope (that) we soon begin to hear the proud voices of wisdom and professionalism inside the department....(and that) when these voices are loosed, cultural change will happen very quickly indeed."

Police culture is well-known to be resistant to the emergence of evidence- and education-based policies and procedures grounded in psychology, sociology, and greater observance of fundamental legal principles. This statement holds true, I think, even when we grant (as I do) that the majority of law enforcement/peace officers are dedicated to their work and carry it out with benign intent and in the face of inherent challenges.

That said, what we need are much more specific and fundamental programmatic approaches--such as (1) higher educational standards, (2) more emphasis and time spent in police academy training on ethical conduct in demanding environments [ideally with documented mastery or certification], (3) more, and more clearly empowered, ombuds and internal investigative functions that operate independently and continuously to research, identify, measure, and make known the actual conduct of departments compared with legal/ethical/professional norms. These more specific, stringent, and quantified activities will "operationalize" and make real what otherwise is likely to remain a sporadic and inconsistent set of hopes and aspiratons that almost everyone shares, but no one builds into a firm and reproducible structure.

The "quid pro quo," just as for expecting improvement in the teaching profession, is that police officers should be compensated and supported better in their roles. A side-effect of "all of the above" would be better public understanding and appreciation of what good police work is, and its vital importance in a properly functioning society of free citizens.

For a certain segment of the force, these kinds of suggestions are not feasible in the gritty reality of what officers on the street are faced with and are charged with addressing. And in our current financial environment, there are no doubt many policy- and budget-makers who will say "we can't afford it."

But long-term improvement almost certainly depends on such changes (in both receptivity/acceptance within the force and in development and implementation of the programmatic and policy content), and I suspect that everyone shares Mr. Burgess's impulse for facing up to deficiencies and achieving real advancement.

Seneca

Posted Fri, Feb 4, 3:28 p.m. Inappropriate

To me, there are really only two major problems with the SPD. One is that there is 0 accountability in the system and the other is that there is little institutional pretense for professional or fair behavior on the part of officers.

To address the issue of accountability, Burgess' first solution is a good start. If the institution actually admits to and rectifies errors (such as sonny's example) the errors wouldn't be nearly as big deal. However, SPD needs to go further than that. The SDP ought to have a rule that makes covering someones back after a screw up as bad as the actual egregious act. In other words, in Shandy Cobain case, all four officers, plus any higher ups who were aware of the stomping, should be held equally responsible for not reporting the incident to the proper authorities or the public as Cobain is for the stomping itself. In fact, the bystanding officers, by being bystanders, were essentially condoning Shandy's actions, which is also problematic, but that situation is more complicated. The main point is that covering a**es has to be absolutely unacceptable within SPD.

To supplement this policy, all police work should be free public record, assuming pending investigations are completed, just like other public documents. Because the police are a public institution that consistently deals directly with the public and because they are so susceptible to corruption and bullying, this sort of policy would be necessary to ensure accountability. Otherwise it is to easy for the status quo to persist.

As for fair and professional behavior, reprimands for rude behavior ought to be in place. Unlike other public institutions, such as DOL, where rude behavior on the part of an employee can be dealt with on a more or less even plane by the costumer, dealings with the police inherently place the non policeman in a state of helplessness. While this is necessary for the job, far to often (from my limited experience) Seattle police use their position of EXTREME power to verbally bully or toy with those they have pulled over etc. This can of behavior should be unacceptable not a norm.

Other then Burgess' first solution, the only one of his steps that has significant merit is the fifth one. The power that police have and the effects that various uses of that power ought to be reconsidered both within and outside of the SPD. It is so obvious that discipline (on the part of the officers that is) and professionalism are critical to good and trustworthy police work and yet many officers can't stop being jerks, which is obviously problematic.

Trusting SPD to deal with their problems has obviously failed. This leads me to believe that we should look for solutions to SPD's problems that don't require Seattleites to trust the instincts of the police.

Posted Sat, Feb 5, 6:15 a.m. Inappropriate

It seems that what we need is leadership and accountability. Leadership needs to come from the police chief as well as the mayor and city council. What this piece demonstrates in its bloodless dispassion is how lacking in leadership we are in the council member that chairs the public safety committee. His pseudo intellectualism ("only 2.4 percent of the incidents") is a thin apology for what is really happing on the streets. Those "incidents" involved real people being gunned down for no reason, stomped and otherwise abused by cops who have never been punished or otherwise held accountable for their actions. We should find an ivory tower where Professor Burgess can contemplate the teachings of Skolnick and find some one for his seat who actually understands that attacking another human being while screaming that you are going to kick the Mexican out of them is not only felony assault but racism in worst form.

tup

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