Seattle’s police department has been under a lot of scrutiny recently due to some controversial incidents with officers and the public — most significantly, the tragic shooting death of John Williams. The department is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the results from that investigation will hopefully help restore both the public’s faith in the department and improve the morale for officers.
It will be important for Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz to show they can lead a department that, at the moment, seems to be adrift. Into the leadership vacuum at the moment, however, has stepped the head of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Rich O’Neill.
The SPD command staff and mayor have decided to stand back and let outside forces, like the DOJ, provide political cover for the management of the department. In the absence of the chief speaking up more strongly for the professionalism of the rank and file, O’Neill has become the public voice for the department.
This is not a healthy state of affairs and the mayor and Diaz need to step up and exert leadership now if there is any hope of improving the way the police and community work together to enhance community safety.
There are some great ideas out there on how policing can be improved for both the officers and the community.
Recently, law enforcement researchers from George Mason University came to town. In a visit with Crosscut, their presentation went into some detail about the policing of place, crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), and integrating crime analysis with policing.
But much of the focus was on leadership and providing police officers with the freedom and incentive to work with neighbors and business owners in a partnership for community safety. And while crime analysis, mapping, and integrating these tools into patrol is an emphasis of their strategy, a focus on creating effective leadership is central to accomplishing these goals.
But there is a feeling among officers that they are much more scrutinized by the Police Department than being given the freedom to develop their own ideas and programs. The department seems to be far more concerned about liability than developing tactics for crime fighting.
Additionally, officers are too often isolated by the beat structure and don’t coordinate and share information with other officers. There is little emphasis given to proactive policing — getting of the car and interacting with people in the area. Instead of policing of place, officers more often than not tend to answer calls and be reactive.
The GMU researchers have some good ideas on how to change this: alter field training sheets to force new habits (field training sheets are a checklist used in evaluations), integrate crime analysis units into patrol, change how officers are promoted (too often proactive officers are passed over because they tend to make waves), and create a radio code to record proactive policing, so it’s tracked in the records management system and used to evaluate officers for training or promotion purposes.
These are all good ideas but there is a bigger problem that can only be addressed by our political and department leadership. The distrust between the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and the rank and file union — the Seattle Police Officers' Guild — is making change impossible. There is concern by officers that if they are proactive and something goes wrong, neither the department nor the city leadership will support them. There is a void of leadership in the Department Command Staff that is, unfortunately, being filled by the Guild.
It is unfortunate because the Guild is an advocacy organization like any other union. The President of the Guild, Rich O’Neill, and the Board are elected democratically by their members. They are charged with trying to get the best deal possible for their members and to protect their interests. They should not be the leaders of the department. O’Neill has stepped into a larger role largely because the mayor and the chief have ceded that ground.
It is rare for a mayor to get along well with Guild leadership — rarer still for the Guild and Chief to get along. The union versus management relationship exists in many different occupations. This is why we have negotiations. By definition, you only negotiate with people you don’t agree with. Unfortunately, we are at a point where both sides are firmly entrenched and are communicating mostly through the media. This is truly a lousy way to negotiate.
So how do the mayor and the chief take back leadership of the Department and get these relationships on a more productive footing?
First, the chief needs to stand up to the mayor more often. One of the best things a police chief can do is say no to a mayor. Chief Patrick Fitzsimons did it on many occasions when Charley Royer, my dad, served as mayor. At the time, I’m sure it made the mayor angry but he later could recognize it as good counsel. I witnessed the same dynamic on many occasions with then-Chief Gil Kerlikowske and Mayor Greg Nickels. It takes some time for a chief to find his footing, but Diaz needs to do it as quickly as possible, given the current political dynamics.
Second, the mayor needs to meet with the Guild Board. Most of them were elected with over 80 percent of the vote and understand the perspectives of their fellow officers. This will be a difficult meeting due to some hard feelings caused by statements on both sides.
The mayor should also schedule roll call visits in every precinct to hear officer perspectives and concerns directly. Chief Diaz should do this as well. There is a feeling amongst officers that the command staff and Diaz are hiding out, waiting for better days to come. Those days won’t come without strong leadership, which means facing up to critics and moving the relationship forward.
Third, Rich O’Neill must be more open to accepting community criticism about individual officer behavior and give the mayor and the chief a chance to take the reins of leadership at the department. There will be a temptation to wait another two years and forget about making an effort to negotiate with Mayor McGinn or Chief Diaz. This would be a mistake — both because the city needs a strong department now and because the mayor could win re-election. Two years is an eternity and the Guild needs to work with the mayor that the people elect.
Finally, the mayor needs someone in his office with public safety experience who understands the culture in the department. The mayor’s legal counsel, Carl Marquardt, is respected by SPD leaders but likely doesn’t have the time to do much of the outreach in the department and community that would help resolve some of these issues.
There are opportunities that are continually missed by the mayor’s staff. For instance, on April 7, Police Captain Dan Oliver retired from the department after 42 years of service. He grew up here in Seattle and attended Blanchet High School and the UW. The party was well attended by current and retired officers and family and friends. There was no presence from the Mayor’s Office or even the City Council.
Oliver will be missed precisely because he has the leadership traits that we want to see in all our leaders. This would have been a good time to show respect for the policing profession and open some avenues of communication.
It’s time for the mayor and the chief to step it up and lead the department. There will be strong words and hurt egos to be sure if they do what needs to be done. But that is the essence of leadership — doing what needs to be done no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel.
Leadership is hard, but it’s not complicated.