Is there a leader for the police issue?

As tangled and dramatic as events have been, there is potential for moving the city forward. But it will require the right approach.

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Councilmembers Bruce Harrell, left, and Tim Burgess, right, escort Mayor Mike McGinn to give his 2011 budget address to the City Council.

As tangled and dramatic as events have been, there is potential for moving the city forward. But it will require the right approach.

The U.S. Department of Justice's report of its 11-month investigation of the Seattle Police Department is a pivotal moment in the term of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. The Justice report found that the Seattle Police Department routinely uses excessive force in an unconstitutional manner, is beset by a troubled professional culture, and does not effectively manage the use of force by its officers.

Last Friday’s events threw Seattle politics into stark relief, with some players circling wagons, snapping to defense, or seeking a perch from which to crow “we told you so” or “somebody do something,” while trying to leave few fingerprints on this messy scene.

Even with Mayor Mike McGinn beginning this week with an expression of willingness to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Justice, the city needs more. What’s still to be seen is robust leadership — someone willing to stick their neck out to do the painstaking, difficult work of bringing together disparate parties to forge a hard-won, positive result from the quagmire.

The statements from all parties, especially the Department of Justice (DOJ), show the size of the challenge. According to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, Justice is "not interested in fixes that will last a year or two and then result in backsliding" and added that the fixes "must include a court order and the assistance of an independent monitor." Jenny Durkan, the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, said, "The coming months could very well determine what the next generation of policing looks like in the City of Seattle."

If anything, that's an understatement.

A DOJ press conference, where Durkan was joined by Perez to announce the results of their investigation, kicked off a long weekend of drama. Minutes afterward came glossy remarks from Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, outgoing chair of the city council Public Safety Committee and presumptive 2013 mayoral candidate. Then came statements from the ACLU and community leaders who had sought DOJ intervention nearly a year ago. The Police Guild president next said precisely what was expected of him, and the police chief's e-mail message to his department seemed breathtakingly obstinate.

At the end of the day, comments arrived from the mayor that were partly obvious and partly less so: saying that the city is committed to work with the DOJ (indeed, the alternative is to be sued by them) and that “We will continue working with the people of Seattle to build a police force that fights crime and builds trust as it protects the members of our community."

Over the weekend, local media swiveled the spotlight directly on McGinn, suggesting that the mayor was caught between supporting the police and their chief or moving forcefully to reform the department, as the DOJ wants. On Monday, the mayor and chief’s messaging changed, with the chief telling The Times, “We are going to continue to work collaboratively with DOJ to implement everything we need to.” And by Wednesday, McGinn elaborated on the commitment to collaboration, saying he and Police Chief John Diaz were taking several immediate steps to strengthen supervision, as recommended by the DOJ report.

More than snowstorms, potholes or even larger holes in the ground, a big city mayor’s career can be made or broken by how he handles public safety issues and the management of a city’s police force. This mayor’s selection of rank-and-filer Diaz as police chief helped set this stage. Diaz has solid rapport with officers and command staff, but he is more incrementalist than innovator. And he struggles when trying to communicate a larger vision or engender inspiration. It is understandable that Diaz would instinctively resist the DOJ findings, but in the realm of public opinion those findings are now a bell that cannot be unrung.

The polarization of the players creates a leadership predicament with the feds, the cops, the mayor, the chief, the city attorney, the Seattle Police Guild, the City Council, the oversight Auditor and the Community all playing roles without any of them — yet — stepping in to lead the whole.

The chief and the DOJ are clearly not fully on the same page. Burgess, as the outgoing head of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, says right-sounding things while enjoying a teflon coating for no particular reason (after all, this mess happened on his watch, too), and the incoming public safety chair, Bruce Harrell, is not so far noted for strong leadership on tough multi-party issues. Community groups that were originally part of the base that elected the mayor feel vindicated by the DOJ findings, so for the mayor to throw his weight fully behind Diaz' means alienating himself from some of his core supporters. The police department oversight auditor and the city attorney stand in the wings ready to play some role. And the Department of Justice, for its part, is using media tactics that have a strangely strident and theatrical air.

Despite hand wringing over methodology or data, it would be untenable for the city to deny the DOJ findings outright. The data the DOJ used came from the city in the first place. Differences of degree in the analyses will not change public perception or the headlines. Solutions will require an immense talent for bridging chasms, bringing people together, forging cooperation where little existed before, and building complex, well-structured proposals on a foundation of openness and comity.

But who among this group will step up to lead toward genuine collaboration?

That duty falls first to the mayor. It will be, to put it mildly, the biggest challenge of Mike McGinn’s political career.

It may also be transformational to the second half of his term in office. If the DOJ presents roadblocks or if internecine squabbles boil over (for example, will the mayor want City Attorney Pete Holmes to represent the city if everyone ends up in court? See: deep-bore tunnel), this issue could be McGinn’s Waterloo as election nears. If, however, the mayor deploys his settle-it-out lawyer's instinct instead of the fight-to-the-bitter-end instinct, one could envision a successful wrap-up with the DOJ just around the 2013 election. With that might just come enough oomph to neutralize Burgess's perceived campaign advantage on public safety matters.

But that won't be easy and the stakes are high. If the mayor does not tackle it boldly or cannot bring the parties together, there is space for another to step to the fore and take it on. And there is probably no resolution that will satisfy public opinion without some heads rolling. Maybe the chief's, maybe others, maybe the mayor's.

Whoever grabs the leadership reins, there are several considerations that will prove vital to success:

First, resist the urge to engage in a fight to prove the DOJ wrong. The mayor's statement Monday suggests that he gets this, but the chief's early quibbling has zero chance of success, will alienate the public and does a disservice to the men and women of the SPD. The DOJ findings are a political reality regardless of the fine-grain details.

Second, stronger, better personal working relationships are going to be needed among all of the players. Resist the urge to hunker down and dig deeper trenches. Seek to open doors and minds by constantly finding ways to strengthen all of the interpersonal relationships. Before being a convincer, the leader in this will need to be a convenor, conveyor, balancer and listener with close, frank ties to everyone.

Third, unite around the common interests. No matter whether one thinks the DOJ is right or wrong, there are always better ways to do things and both the men and women of the SPD and the people of Seattle desperately want to find pride in how our city tackles and resolves this challenge. Unite around that.

Fourth, both halves of organizational change will need to be tackled: the systems/structures/procedures piece as well as the organizational-culture piece. Procedural changes alone will never stick if a better working culture does not emerge to support them, and vice versa.

Fifth, if there are people who haven't the skills or mindset to work toward a larger resolution, they must be cleared aside. Some key players may need to be worked into different jobs. Choosing to not play ball cannot be seen as an option; the people of Seattle will not ultimately settle for obstructionism or delay.

Finally, get ahead of schedule. Don't let yourself be backed against the wall of negotiating against deadlines, do everything possible to get out in front of them. Finish ahead of schedule with the DOJ and everyone wins.

Assistant Attorney General Perez's words about policing also ring true about the politics of this crisis: "If you don't have the confidence of the public, you can't do your job." Success can restore a larger civic self-confidence in the city.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.