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Can a new chief bring SPD into the 21st century?

A new police chief will inherit a department where good people labor amidst leadership, workplace rules and technology from a distant era.
Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess Seattle City Council

What kind of police chief does Seattle need?

A charismatic techie would do.

And how about somebody who combines the attitude and system of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll with the personnel smarts of team GM John Schneider?

The search for the new Seattle Police Department chief is underway and from many angles: In addition to input for citizen committees, department overseers, the city council, consultants and the new mayor, a headhunting firm (yet-to-be-named) will pull out the stops in finding the best candidates. In the meantime, the city is getting ready to put the department in shape to be managed.

Key to that effort, according to former SPD police officer and Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess, will be giving the new gal or guy the tools they need to craft SPD into a modern department.

Burgess and Anne Levinson, the Office of Professional Accountability auditor for the SPD and a former judge and aide to mayors Charles Royer and Norm Rice, came down to Crosscut on Thursday to answer questions about department reforms and process. One thing is clear: They believe a lot has to change to get a department worthy of the 21st century.


Anne Levinson. Credit: Meryl Schenker

Burgess argues that Seattle missed out on a lot of the urban police reforms of the 1990s and '00s. "We're playing catch-up," he says. "We're way behind." SPD is way behind on police technology — systems and software that help police departments manage resources and focus on zones where most crime takes place. The department, he says, lacks "statistical capability." In addition, the department doesn't have computerized systems that allow it to track police performance and work on accountability at the push of a button.

Burgess and Levinson are also of the opinion that the department management is stagnant and insular. Burgess says that it has accepted mediocrity. What we need, he says, is a culture "inquiry and innovation."

A chief obstacle has been the police unions and laws put in place that restrict the chief's ability to control the command system. Top jobs, by law, have gone to individuals already within the department, based on seniority and personal relationships, not necessarily skill. The city council is moving to break that up. The Public Safety committee has recommended dumping a 35-year-old law so as to allow the police chief to hire his own top brass — insiders or outsiders — based on skill sets and merit, not time on the job. That, it is hoped, will attract a better class of chief candidates.

Another thing Burgess promises is closer scrutiny of the department and its budgeting by the council, getting a better handle on the budget, perhaps going to an outcome-based budgeting system, and perhaps tracking much more closely where and how the dollars are spent. For example, not getting "surprised" that a limited surveillance camera program for the Port of Seattle expanded to include surveillance at places like Alki, setting off a furor. The drone program is another.

The council needs, he says, to pay more attention and show more resolve. He says the council will be fully prepared to vote "no" on the mayor's choice of chief if they have a problem with her or him. Burgess indicated he had some second thoughts about the approval of former Chief John Diaz, but was not quite willing to say it was a mistake.

Another task: challenging Police Guild rules to give the chief more operational flexibility. "The city has given management authority to the unions, and we have to take it back," Burgess promises. "That's going to be a big battle." In other words, finding a new chief is only part of the tack; reforming the department to make it more manageable is another. This comes at a time when the city is filled with a renewed passion for unions. Could make for interesting fights ahead.


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