Should Seattle hire Seattle cops?

You'd think Mayor Mike McGinn's call for more police who live next door would be a no-brainer, but instead critics say it's a call for mind control. What will the city's "socialist cabal" think of next?

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Mayor Mike McGinn

You'd think Mayor Mike McGinn's call for more police who live next door would be a no-brainer, but instead critics say it's a call for mind control. What will the city's "socialist cabal" think of next?

Mayor Mike McGinn has a knack for pissing off some people even when he's trying to make nice. You can blame him for throwing the occasional elbow, but sometimes the fault lies with people who are just cruising for a reason to get pissed off.

McGinn's State of the City speech last week wasn't exactly a pay streak of news nuggets. My favorite who-can-argue-with-that line from the prepared remarks was "I love volunteers." Ah, Mr. Mayor, maybe you spoke too soon, because plenty of people are volunteering to be outraged at even your most innocuous ideas.

Case in point was McGinn's suggestion that it would be great if more cops lived in Seattle. He acknowledged that state law prevents the city from requiring that, but he wants a department that looks more like the city and shares Seattle values. "It's hard to have a good local police force if the police aren't local," he said. With some 300 officers eligible for retirement, the city has an "opportunity to recruit officers from the community and who understand our community and its values."

If you choose to twist yourself in knots over this idea, you could, like columnist Joel Connelly, call for McGinn's ouster ("bring out the hook") and lump him in the same category as Tim Eyman and Christian "values" conservatives, and accuse him of being a Seattle isolationist.

If you're the Seattle Times, you could play up the speech as controversial because when you quote portions to the head of the Seattle Police Guild, Sgt. Rich O'Neill, he says, "Nobody has a right to control someone else's mind. That's totally inappropriate."

You'd think McGinn was pushing North Korean brainwashing techniques. From McGinn's perspective, which he has previously shared with the Times (according to this Jerry Large column), when he means values in this context, the mayor is talking about racial non-discrimination, a "value" backed by our laws and the Constitution. We're not talking radical ideology here.

It does not strike me that McGinn is trying to enforce an ideological litmus tests for cops or anyone else. Note: he talks about "understanding" values, not even sharing them. What I hear is that he thinks there's an advantage to having more cops living in the city they police. If they live there 24/7, if they send their kids to the same schools with your kids, if they shop where you shop, you're likely to have a lot more in common.

Is it something you mandate? No. Is it a plus? Yes. It's as American as Andy Griffith.

This holds true for teachers and firefighters and other public servants: They have a stake that's personal, not simply professional. When they go home at night, they don't escape the consequences of city policies or leadership (good or otherwise). It means if they don't, say, like Mayor McGinn's politics, or don't think they get paid enough, or if they believe the schools aren't good enough for their kids, they can weigh in with their vote. Their tax dollars are at stake too. The shared values aren't ideological as much as they are communal.

Getting cops and civilians on the same page is tough enough as it is. You can go too far trying. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper tells a story on himself in his excellent book, Breaking Rank. He was a proponent of community policing, which is one expression of the concept of getting close to your constituents.

Stamper says he went too far, however, when he proposed that the San Diego police department forsake their uniforms and patrol the streets in (presumably blue) blazers. Dumb idea, but dumb with a point: Cops should know the communities they serve and they need to be in touch to be truly effective. There are too many barriers between cops and the people.

How do you bridge the inevitable us-and-them divide that can become toxic in some police departments? The police need to enforce the laws, they need to carry weapons for our protection and theirs. The uniform sends an important message: They are citizens, but not civilians. Still, the divide can't be allowed to grow too wide.

At a City Hall forum on police issues, the Guild head, Sgt. O'Neill, reportedly said that there wouldn't be complaints against the police if citizens just did what they were told. In other words, no complainant is innocent, and no officer is wrong.

How's that for a perspective chasm?

Or this: Officer Steve Pomper wrote an article for the Guild newspaper earlier this year and in it he called Seattle's leadership a "quaint socialist cabal" and said that anyone supporting the city's anti-racial bias training was "the enemy." Okay, it's just one cranky columnist (I understand), but that's an attitude you don't evaluate in isolation when it comes to public employees carrying guns: There are some serious problems with the behavior of some officers, and there's plenty of video tape to indicate racial issues are real ("Mexican piss" anyone?).

Anne Levinson was at Crosscut last week discussing her new report as auditor for the Office of Police Accountability. The former judge and Norm Rice deputy mayor had an number of interesting observations and recommendations about how to improve things in the department, at least in terms of reducing the number of complaints (and for the record, the vast majority of officers have no complaints against them). 

The ideas include: Better training in de-escalating situations, more mentoring of young officers by supervisors (sergeants often aren't even on duty during the shifts that their officers are working), use of police car videos to evaluate and train officers (currently, that's prohibited), more patrolling in pairs. One-third of the SPD's officers are new hires with three years or fewer on the job. Many are new to the area, just out of the military, and 82 percent live outside the city limits. 

A fair question to ask: Are officers who deal with new and growing immigrant populations, urban pressures, more mentally ill folks on the streets, language and ethnic culture gaps, and youth gangs, among other things, culturally competent to do so? You have to learn it; for some, living it off-duty, too, might be a faster track to gaining the trust of the people they serve. Or a way to understand the civic dynamics of the city to be protected. In modern policing, context matters.

If McGinn is talking about racial quotas for hiring, or if he's taking the line that only a black cop can police black people and that suburban white cops should stick to gated communities, he'd be wrong. Police have to learn to do their jobs anywhere and for everyone.

You can't be in the position of sending one kind of officer to Rainier Beach and another kind to Broadmoor. But that's not what McGinn's saying. He wants a more diverse, urban-savvy department that is well-trained and doesn't discriminate. What a scandal.

In his speech, McGinn pointed out two cops in the audience that fit that bill, officers Robert Besaw and Tom Burns. According to the mayor, these guys walk the Belltown beat and grew up in West Seattle together. For the record, they are two burly white guys with a combined 45 years of service between them. Said McGinn, "They know the people on their beat. They know the business owners, the neighbors, the homeless, and others in the community." 

They hardly seem like the imagined exemplars of Seattle's "socialist cabal" that is brainwashing cops and forcing them to live with the "enemy" in South Park. Rather, they seem like guys who have made a commitment to their hometown that's refreshing and commendable. 

Why not more like them?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.