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.

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Seattle Police Chief John Diaz

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

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. 

Fifth, we should have a robust discussion about our philosophy of policing.  How do we enforce the law and uphold our constitutional protections at the same time?  What's the difference between a "command and control" philosophy of policing and one based on "maintaining the peace”? Why does this distinction matter? Are there emerging trends in policing that we can discover from the experience of other cities and the literature of policing? 

Sixth, those inside and outside the police department must focus on constructive criticism, not destructive criticism. Denigration of the police will only turn our officers away from this effort and we need them as full participants.

Seventh, it would be a mistake to believe that a tweak of process or new rules or even new training can somehow be a panacea that will resolve all the public's concerns.  There might indeed be necessary changes, but focusing only on these typical solutions may distract us from the more fundamental issues I'm highlighting here. 

For me, it's all about what the internal culture of the police department will either tolerate or condemn.  I've seen a cultural-turnaround happen before in the police department, albeit under very different circumstances than those we face today.

When I became an officer in the early 1970s the city was reeling from a massive system of corruption at City Hall and deep in the police department.  The culture back then silenced the good cops and allowed the corrupt ones to line their pockets with bribes and graft.  Good people turned a blind eye; the cultural pressures were too strong.  But that corrupt system was vanquished when good officers broke their silence by standing up and telling the truth.

Today’s police department is staffed with many good people who do their jobs extremely well. I hope we soon begin to hear the proud voices of wisdom and professionalism inside the department.  These are the voices Seattle needs to hear.  These voices belong to the hundreds of officers, detectives and civilians who do it right every hour of their workday, week after week, month after month, year after year.  When these voices are loosed, cultural change will happen very quickly indeed.


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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.