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Behind the scenes: How Seattle police training met the future

Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole. Credit: Alex Garland

Minutes before Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced her four new assistant chiefs last week, a Seattle police union dropped an unfair-labor complaint it had filed against the city. The complaint, brought last February, had aimed to remove O’Toole’s ability to bring candidates from outside into department leadership positions. The union’s move was a dramatic reversal, but the reason for the tentative labor peace was buried amid the news of her selections, two of them from outside.

In fact, the union’s agreement to drop the complaint hinged on the creation of an in-house leadership development program specifically for SPD personnel. The idea behind the program is that, rather than mandating internal hiring as the city has done for 35 years, a leadership program would nurture and develop desirable candidates from inside the department.

Captain Mike Edwards
Captain Mike Edwards

For Seattle Police Management Association president Captain Mike Edwards and for council president Tim Burgess, this program is a huge step in the right direction. “It’s a new day in the department,” said Burgess, who was once a Seattle police detective.

The deal is the culmination of a saga spanning at least a year, perhaps more, depending on whom you ask. For 35 years a city law, ordinance 124415, forbade filling leadership positions with people from outside the police department or promoting from more than one rank below. In January of 2014, the Seattle City Council changed the ordinance’s language. Burgess, who, with Councilmember Bruce Harrell, spearheaded the change, said, “In my view, our police department had become stagnant.”

For Burgess, the lack of new blood had led to a “weak bench” of candidates for leadership positions. As a result, “People were being placed in leadership positions that were unprepared.”

Last spring Eric Sano, then the president of the Seattle Police Management Association, told Crosscut that, while he was not wholly against outsider hiring, he was concerned that outsiders would narrow the career paths of SPD’s captains and lieutenants. When asked if he shared those concerns, Burgess replied, “Not at all.”

The union filed its complaint against the ordinance’s revision in February. According to Edwards, the complaint was a reaction to getting cut out of any negotiations over the change, not necessarily to bringing in outsiders. “We were always willing to sit down at the table and negotiate. But we weren’t given that chance.”

Police Chief O’Toole had signaled she was going to expand her search for new assistant chiefs in December, well before the unions’ complaint was dropped. O’Toole appeared ready to move ahead with her search for new blood, union support or no. “O’Toole wants to create a sense of urgency inside the department,” said Burgess.

According to Edwards, the union and O’Toole were motivated to strike a deal by a mutual willingness to step back and re-evaluate the state of the department. “We wanted to move forward,” he said.

“One of my four priorities is enhancing SPD pride and professionalism,” said Police Chief O’Toole in an e-mail. She said she is enthusiastic about working with the SPMA and she is “committed to a professional development program for all members of the Department, sworn and civilian.”

O’Toole did not comment on exactly how the deal came to pass. According to Edwards, the negotiations began only days before O’Toole’s new assistant chiefs were introduced. Edwards said he was meeting with O’Toole for a different reason when someone suggested the idea of leadership development program. Edwards can’t remember exactly how the idea came up, but said once the ball got rolling, it all happened very fast.

Both Burgess and Edwards described signing the deal as they walked into a mayoral conference room, where O’Toole was about to announce her appointments to the media.

One question that comes out of the plan for a leadership program, which Edwards calls “groundbreaking,” is: What was there before?

David Bales, director of the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, said his department runs a program for leadership development. That program is roughly one full week. Bales said it’s mostly sergeants and lieutenants interested in gaining more leadership and management skills.

Compared to Edwards’ hopes for SPD’s new in-house program, however, that training is relatively small and not necessarily available to the whole department. “We would make part of our program mandatory for all officers,” Edwards said.

The gold standard for law enforcement leadership training is the FBI program in Virginia. That program is an intensive, three-month course open to all law enforcement across the country. “That program is almost a prerequisite to becoming a chief or assistant chief,” said Edwards.

There is some disagreement over whether SPD has taken full advantage of that FBI program. Burgess said that SPD is afforded three or four spots every year to send personnel, but often use only one, if that.

When asked if this was the case, Edwards said, flatly, no. “We are given the opportunity to submit three to four names a year. But that is a very competitive program and we are not always granted admission.” Edwards said that, due to the three-month commitment required for the FBI program, personnel are often hesitant to leave behind work and family. He added, however, that when someone was accepted and able to go, the department paid for their trip and kept them on full salary.

As Edwards envisions the local program, it would be good enough to, essentially, replace the need to participate in the FBI course.

“For whatever reason,” said Burgess, “the SPD has not had a formal succession program to advance people to senior leadership programs.” Edwards agreed: “We might have 60 people in our department, but only eight of them are natural candidates. We want to reach all 60.” Other than the occasional participant in the FBI program or the Senior Management Institute for Police in Boston, which trained new assistant chief Lesley Cordner, Seattle has relied mostly on finding natural leaders who have moved up the rungs of the department.

For Burgess, this is not the best way. “Not everyone is a natural leader nor has the management skills,” he said. “But those skills can be taught. [SPD] hasn’t insisted on that training.”

Policing is changing, thanks in part to social media and data collection. A few weeks ago, Chief O’Toole demanded SPD officers adhere to stricter policies on how they present themselves on the Internet. Seattle Police Officers Guild President Ron Smith made waves when he told The Stranger that officers either needed to get with the times or get out.

As body-worn cameras become more prevalent, knowledge of how information is collected and stored is becoming almost essential. Recently an auditor from the City of Seattle determined SPD has large gaps in their ability to follow the Public Disclosure Act, due mostly to the huge amount of information being collected. The hiring of civilian and former Amazon VP Greg Russell as the department’s Chief Technology Officer, a new position, further signals the meshing of law enforcement and technology.

But the lack of in-house leadership training has, according to Burgess, “kept our senior folks from understanding how policing has changed over the last few years. The SPD culture hasn’t been keeping pace.”

In some ways, Cordner is the best example of what a leadership program could

New assistant police chief Lesley Cordner
New assistant police chief Lesley Cordner

accomplish. She participated in Boston’s SMIP program and is now the only new O’Toole appointee to leapfrog from lieutenant to assistant chief. Before her promotion, she served as an aide to Chief O’Toole, signaling that O’Toole and the department see something in her that transcends her ability rise through the ranks.

The kind of flexibility shown in Cordner’s promotion and the new professional growth and development program would set the standard for police departments around the country, said Edwards. “An officer from Spokane would look to Seattle and find it more appealing and maybe want to come over here.” He stopped short of saying the SPD needs that outside blood, but said if the department becomes a model for nurturing and promoting leaders, SPD would see its ability to recruit quality officers increase. “Now, people only move departments if they’re being promoted or demoted. This development program would encourage lateral movement into the SPD.”

The department has one year to work out the details of their program. “We’d like to look to the International Association of Police Chiefs to see what else is out there,” said Edwards. “We also want to look to the private sector. It would be great if we could spend a week with Amazon, a week with Starbucks, a week with Microsoft, to understand how they foster leadership.” For Edwards, leaders in the department have to understand not only management and policing skills, but also budgets and technology.

Burgess agreed that looking to the private sector could work. But he would like to see the program take on some of the more difficult questions surrounding law enforcement. “This kind of leadership academy,” he said, “would focus on the whole history of American police and understanding why certain communities have high levels of mistrust. The role of the police in keeping some people down must be talked about, understood and reflected upon.”

The program is a step forward for the relations between the unions and the city, but if it isn’t ready in one year and SPMA isn’t satisfied with the results in two years, the unions could still seek legal arbitration.

Edwards’ high hopes to the program are met with more skepticism from Burgess, who said he’d wait for the results before calling it groundbreaking. Still, he is optimistic. “Until 10-15 years ago, if you asked a police officer what’s my job, they would say to respond to crime, to arrest people and to pursue successful prosecution. Today, police believe they can prevent crime from happening in the first place.

“That has not fully taken root in Seattle. Teaching and understanding that mindset would be very helpful for our department.”

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