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SPD’s big week: What went down, what’s to come

New assistant chiefs (from left) Cordner, Tarrant, Wilske and Merner with Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole and new CTO Greg Russell. Credit: Alex Garland

Reform has been a buzzword following Kathleen O’Toole around since Mayor Ed Murray nominated her to be Seattle’s new police chief last spring. Last week, O’Toole took her most significant step yet towards reform as she made good on her promise to select a new command team that includes outside leadership. Here’s a quick recap of last week’s momentous moves and what to look out for in the weeks to come.

On Monday, The Seattle Times broke the news that O’Toole had told four assistant chiefs in the department that they would not be re-hired in their current positions. By the end of the day, we had names: assistant chiefs Robin Clark, of detectives and investigations; Paul McDonagh, of the Special Operations Bureau; Tag Gleason, who handled the federally-mandated reforms; and Mike Washburn, of the Field Support Bureau.

The move was not altogether surprising. Last December, O’Toole announced she was opening the positions to competition. But it was still big news.

Clark, McDonagh, Gleason and Washburn had been promoted by interim Police Chief Harry Bailey, who kept the chair warm during the mayor’s search for a new chief. Bailey, however, took it upon himself to hire the new assistant chiefs permanently rather than assign them interim status. O’Toole pledged to reorganize her command team as soon as she was confirmed by Seattle City Council. Had the four also been assigned interim status, their replacement would have been standard operating procedure rather than the demotion it now appears to be.

On Wednesday, Chief O’Toole introduced the members of her new command team: Captain Steve Wilske and Lieutenant Lesley Cordner from the SPD, Robert Merner from the Boston Police Department and Perry Tarrant from Yakima. O’Toole also introduced the department’s new Chief Technology Officer Greg Russell, most recently of Amazon.

Not since 1978 have outsiders or someone with the rank of lieutenant been chosen for assistant chief. In fact, a standing ordinance forbade it. That changed in January 2014 when the city council overturned ordinance 124415 and opened the positions up for national competition.

The police union, the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), didn’t like the ordinance change and filed an unfair-labor practice complaint over it last February. Although SPMA president Mike Edwards maintained he was open to hiring some outsiders, he felt the union had not been well represented in the negotiations about overturning the 1978 ordinance. He also worried that the change was a slippery slope towards a habit of replacing locals with outsiders.

The union would drop its labor complaint on Wednesday after O’Toole promised to establish a leadership development program for SPD personnel. The program’s goal is to train up qualified chiefs from within the department. According to Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess, the agreement between the chief and the union was signed minutes before O’Toole’s press conference.

The new hires are a huge step for O’Toole, the Seattle Police Department, Ed Murray’s administration and the city. So, now what?

Detective Patrick Michaud, public affairs representative for the SPD, couldn’t provide an exact schedule for the transition. He was unsure, for example, when the four new assistant chiefs and CTO actually assume their new positions. But Monday is the last day in their current positions, including Russell at Amazon.

Here are a few milestones to look out for:

Once everyone has assumed his or her new role, keep an eye on how Lesley Cordner fares. Cordner has been serving as an aide to O’Toole and something about her obviously caught the chief’s eye, but the former lieutenant will be leapfrogging over her current superiors, which could generate some initial friction.

Captain Steve Wilske, O’Toole’s other inside pick, is already well respected and admired within the SPD, according to Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. How will he balance his loyalties to longtime SPD colleagues as he develops working relationships with the new assistant chiefs coming in from the outside?

How will the role of body cameras change now that the department has a full time CTO in Russell? And how will the new job change Russell himself, a newcomer to law enforcement?

What will become of Clark, McDonagh, Gleason and Washburn, the four displaced assistant chiefs? Without just cause, former assistant chiefs cannot be demoted below their former ranks, which in the case of all four was captain. Problem is there aren’t any captain jobs available inside SPD. Union president Ron Smith foresees an awkward “glut of captains” inside the department. Keep your eyes out for “special project” assignments.

Not surprisingly, details haven’t surfaced about the SPD’s new leadership development program yet. At the press conference, SPMA’s Edwards showed great optimism for its success. But he allowed that if the program doesn’t lead to enough internal promotions, the union would still consider legal arbitration.

How many internal promotions is enough to satisfy the union? Will the new training program create candidates who are competitive at a national level? Will the threat of arbitration influence O’Toole’s future decisions on hiring and promotion? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Council President Tim Burgess told Crosscut that SPD had shown a consistent lack of interest in the leadership development program for law enforcement officers that is run by the FBI. According to Burgess, the SPD rarely, if ever, used its allotted slots for the program.

SPMA president Mike Edwards explained that the SPD doesn’t often send people to the FBI program because, while the department is encouraged to submit names to the program, it is not always granted slots. “We compete nationally for those spaces,” he said, adding that the program is located in Virginia and is three months long, which makes it difficult to find willing candidates.

The new program, said Edwards, signals the union’s interest in doing that training “in house.”

Crosscut will continue to track all the questions and developments in and about the Seattle Police Department makeover, along with the issues and challenges raised by its expanding use of body cameras. But one thing is certain: Around the SPD, at least, the coming weeks and months won’t be dull.

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