Police reform requires leadership in the department

There are many good ideas. But is the leadership in the department and its unions prepared to make real changes that will improve a department full of people who want to do a good job?

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Seattle Police Chief John Diaz

There are many good ideas. But is the leadership in the department and its unions prepared to make real changes that will improve a department full of people who want to do a good job?

On the day of his departure as chair of the Seattle City Council Public Safety committee, Councilmember Tim Burgess issued a lengthy policy paper on what should be done to improve policing in Seattle.

In the report Burgess lists five major accomplishments the City Council claims to have achieved in improving the Seattle Police Department (SPD): increasing the number of officers; increasing civilian oversight; creating laws to abate chronic nuisance properties; increasing penalties for exploitation and prostitution; and recommending another 11 council-driven reforms in order to "increase public trust and confidence in our police officers."

In addition to those 11 council reforms, Burgess' whitepaper goes on to make nine more recommendations about how to reform the department, calling them all rather grandly, "A New Philosophy of Policing." Burgess' timing seems a bit off — as he is the outgoing chair of the Public Safety committee.

For all of the effort developing recommendations, there seems to be something that's missing in terms of leadership and what might be done to translate ideas into action.

Last month, of course, the United States Department of Justice's investigation and report included 31 specific recommendations (with the Feds' implied-lawsuit hammer backing them) about how to fix the department. Not to be left out, the Seattle City Auditor has just released its report, requested by the council earlier in 2011, on how the SPD can better use its own crime data to manage itself.

All of these are just the recommendations from outside the department. The regular Office of Professional Accountability reports are issued every six months and one can presume that a mountain of internal recommendations are swirling about City Hall and police headquarters.

From outside the tight-knit world of the department, there is clearly no lack of ideas and, in the case of the United States government, requirements for how to improve the situation. For those keeping score, all 55 combined external recommendations are summarized in a chart.

Meanwhile, the city's negotiations with the Department of Justice "are ongoing," according to mayoral spokesman Aaron Pickus. As those talks proceed, a spot in the room will open up for someone to take on the larger task of providing leadership and helping bring the disparate parties together.

What is striking amid all the recommending now coming forward is the outsize number of procedural tweaks as opposed to larger leadership fixes being proposed. The majority of recommendations focus on improving processes, training, tools, and technical aspects of how things get done. Yet creating a working cultural change in a large organization within a challenging political climate requires more than that — it requires continual inspiration, leadership, and an ability to unite the parties around a compelling vision and mutually rewarding approach.

That means reaching out to — and connecting with — the men and women of the force beyond the collective bargaining paradigm and it also means finding a way to forge new working relationships with the two unions that represent rank-and-file officers and the command staff. That reaching out will need to happen in both directions.

In the 55 recommendations now barreling down on the department, some of the biggest elephants in the room are barely glanced upon: Does Chief of Police John Diaz have the skills and natural inclination (something very different from having an earnest desire) to make the scope and scale of changes needed? Do the unions representing the police force understand that the momentum for change will make digging in their contractual heels far less politically palatable than it has been before?

There is a need for more participation in this civic conversation by the rank-and-file men and women of the police department. The vast majority of Seattle police are hard working, fair-minded, and committed to the community and to their public service. The vast majority of the public likewise understands this. This process would benefit from the public hearing more from those sensible and  service-minded officers. And those officers deserve robust leadership from their department and their labor leaders, to be sure. 

So few of the recommendations being proffered address the issue of how to work with officers themselves — and their labor representatives — to improve the operating culture of the department. It's as though the recommenders fervently hope that by executing a few dozen procedural, analytical, or training changes, the working culture of the organization will transform itself as a result.

But changes in practices, procedures, and techniques are not enough to improve departmental culture. There is room for much more in the way of input and recommendations from the workforce itself in how to achieve that goal. It will be vital for the public to hear moderate and sensible voices of officers in order to be able to reconnect and communicate in both directions. That's an essential part of strengthening the relationship between the city's people and its police force.


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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.