Tim Burgess: Seattle’s police-chief appointment comes at a critical time

Mayor McGinn faces his most important hire yet, at a time when crime and street disorder are on the rise and the public's trust in its officers is faltering.
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Tim Burgess failed the progressive litmus test.

Mayor McGinn faces his most important hire yet, at a time when crime and street disorder are on the rise and the public's trust in its officers is faltering.

Mayor Mike McGinn will name a new Seattle police chief soon, perhaps in the next few days. He is expected to select one of two remaining finalists — Interim Seattle Chief John Diaz and Chief Ron Davis from East Palo Alto, Calif. — recommended by a 26-member citizen selection committee.

It will be by far McGinn'ꀙs most important appointment as Mayor. Seattle'ꀙs next chief of police faces daunting challenges that will require strong, effective, and confidence-inspiring leadership from day one. And no mayor wants the complications or distractions that can spring without warning from serious police issues.

A look at Seattle'ꀙs history confirms the importance of the city'ꀙs top cop.

Consider former Mayor Paul Schell and his often conflicted and angst-ridden police chief, Norm Stamper, who failed to properly lead his department through preparations for the WTO protests in late 1999. Stamper resigned and Schell was defeated in his reelection bid.

Or former Mayor Wes Uhlman, who in the 1970s cycled through multiple chiefs — including one who exercised his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination before a federal grand jury. Uhlman fired him, then settled on Robert Hanson, an old-guard stalwart who was, incidentally, the last permanent chief appointed from the ranks of the Seattle Police Department. He succeeded in holding the police department together during his tenure, but did so after a bruising, highly charged 5-4 confirmation battle that damaged both Uhlman and Hanson.

Forty-five individuals have served as police chief in Seattle. All kinds of shenanigans surrounded some of them. City Councilmember Bertha Knight Landes — who later served as Seattle'ꀙs first and only woman mayor — booted Police Chief W. B. Severyns from office in 1924 when she was acting mayor. Severyns got his job back seven days later when Mayor Edwin Brown returned to the city. In 1934, Mayor Charles Smith appointed himself as police chief, but that experiment lasted only two months when cooler heads prevailed and Walter Kirtley became chief.

Today, the typical length of service for a major city police chief in the United States is only about 3.5 years. Seattle's most recent chiefs bucked that trend. Gil Kerlikowske served nine years until he left in 2009 to become director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Stamper served six years prior to him. Patrick Fitzsimons — Seattle's longest serving chief and likely the most beloved and respected — held the position 15 years, from 1979 through 1994.

What are the critical challenges our new police chief faces?

Just this week, the City Council was briefed on Mayor McGinn'ꀙs mid-year budget cutbacks. The reductions include halting the police strategic hiring plan, a five-year effort adopted by the council in 2007 to bring the size of the police force up to minimum staffing levels. The Mayor is not likely to resume this hiring next year, which means police commanders will have to make do with less unless the council intervenes.

These cutbacks in police hiring come at a time when police commanders and the city'ꀙs political leaders have failed to adequately address perplexing and seemingly intractable crime and street-disorder issues.

Citywide, reported major violent and property crimes increased 12% and 7% respectively in 2009. Street disorder is widespread. In the heart of Seattle, on our downtown streets and surrounding neighborhoods — the areas of our city that drive our economic vitality and hold most of our jobs — one can routinely observe open-air drug trafficking. At night in our entertainment districts there are frequent assaults and robberies.

Residents of Belltown, Pioneer Square, the Chinatown International District, the University District, and elsewhere have complained bitterly about these issues for years. It'ꀙs as if we just continually throw up our hands, turn away and claim, 'ꀜThat'ꀙs just life in the big city. Live with it.'ꀝ

I don'ꀙt agree that we should learn to 'ꀜlive with it.'ꀝ Seattle'ꀙs police chief must pursue assertive policing and creatively deploy department resources to tackle and solve these and other issues. And the chief must also collaborate with our public school district, social service agencies, and other partners outside the department to pursue effective preventive and intervention measures for those who may run afoul of the law.

The Seattle Police Department is good, and certainly ranks above many. However, it has become complacent and is too conservative about trying new approaches. In key areas the department has not adopted progressive policing practices, which get results and do so efficiently.

Last January, the City Council formally identified proactive problem-solving policing — such as getting a handle on street crime and disorder — along with improved crime analysis and reporting as areas where we expected improvement under the leadership of a new chief.

The department'ꀙs persistent failure to keep pace with technology is a good example of a lost opportunity. Hardly any other city in the country surpasses Seattle'ꀙs software engineering capabilities and yet our police department doesn'ꀙt use real-time crime reporting, can'ꀙt quickly provide crime trend or hotspot analysis, doesn'ꀙt enable crime victims to report online, and doesn'ꀙt share detailed crime statistics with the public by precinct, zip code or census track. This is an internal management problem for the department in terms of strategies and officer deployment. In addition, the lack of full disclosure of crime stats breeds suspicion and mistrust in the community. Community leaders often complain to me about their inability to get solid information on what'ꀙs happening in their neighborhood.

The department needs to take more seriously regional criminal enterprise investigations that aim higher up the criminal profiteering ladder — for example, organized fencing operations that provide an outlet for burglars to 'ꀜsell off'ꀝ the items they steal from our homes. It needs to foster an environment in which innovative ways to suppress illegal guns and target frequent offenders are pursued, examples of proactive policing strategies that would reduce violence and other crimes. Finally, the department should set specific crime-reduction goals and advance stronger, smarter crime deterrents — adopting a sharp and continuing focus on greater transparency and accountability to the community.

Finally, our new police chief will need to reestablish community trust and confidence in our officers as the investigation of the Westlake Avenue North video incident wraps up. A bedrock principle of policing is 'ꀜwillful compliance,'ꀝ the assumption that people will follow the law and help maintain the peace. Incidents like what happened in April on Westlake Avenue shatter the trust relationship between the police and the community.

The Mayor faces a tough choice. Our history of police leadership — the good and bad — provides valuable lessons about the challenges of managing an extremely complex department of such vital importance. The strengths and weaknesses of our police department today suggest that a chief who is both a superb manager and an imaginative leader will best serve us. This must be an individual who has the strength of character to gain the immediate trust and support of our officers, who can rally his staff to break free from ineffectual practices, who challenges the Mayor and City Council to insist on excellence, and who inspires the confidence of our citizens.

We need a police chief who is committed to and capable of lifting a good department to greatness.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess is a former city council member and interim mayor of Seattle.