Police reform: let's hear from the troops

The political wrangling is over, but serious issues about technology and police leadership remain. A police veteran explains.
Crosscut archive image.

Mayor Mike McGinn, seen in mid-2011 with police discussing increased nighttime patrols, is now dealing with a federal report on police practices.

The political wrangling is over, but serious issues about technology and police leadership remain. A police veteran explains.

The settlement between the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle last week is generally positive news. One downside: the public will now never get a full hearing of how the DOJ arrived at its conclusions about the performance of Seattle Police – something that DOJ is probably very relieved about.

Still, sometimes it’s better to move on and find common ground than to continue arguing the facts. And this is what Mayor Mike McGinn, the DOJ attorneys, and City Attorney Pete Holmes had on full display at their Friday afternoon press conference. Relief and laughter were the order of the day.

Noticeably absent from the kumbaya-fest, however, were people in uniform, except for Chief John Diaz of course. This absence is not surprising, given how this process has played out. The discussions about police reform will probably continue with little input from those who actually do the job.

So let's hear one officer’s perspective on the challenges to police reform and how to improve the department and policing in general. My source is a senior officer who has been on the job for nearly 15 years, lives in Seattle, cares about the department, and loves his job. He doesn’t look at it as just a job, though. For him and many others in the department, it was a calling to serve the community and protect victims of crime.

This perspective is not heard in the media, just as it is often ignored by elected officials and the command staff at SPD.

The DOJ report was flawed, as pointed out in the analysis by Seattle University professor Matt Hickman, among others.  That said, the investigators from the DOJ made impressive initial efforts to talk to rank and file officers. Moreover, it is clear the command staff and elected officials have work to do to restore SPD's morale.

Recent events have made it clear that there has never been a more challenging time to be in law enforcement. All the political wrangling hasn't helped matters. But many of the challenges that weigh on the shoulders of those who wear the badge are far from obvious to the public.

In particular, there is a unique issue that is rarely raised, but was brought to the surface by my source. The officer told me that he is seeing younger recruits coming in to the department who are more individualistic, less focused on community, and obsessed with the technological side of the job.

In this, they’re a lot like the rest of the population coming of age. The mismatch for police is that just when community policing is more important than ever, we are replacing retiring officers with people who see the job very differently. Even more troubling, we have elected officials and commanders who are overly enamored with technological solutions to human problems. Recent examples come to mind: the City Council proposing cameras on officers, SPD's unveiling of drone aircraft, and a shots-fired location system.

I’m reminded of the discussions that took place after 911, when SPD and the Fire Department were considering putting cameras under all of our bridges. Asked about the impact, one old-timer in the Fire Department said “you’ll have a really good picture of a guy blowing up a bridge!”

Instead, human intelligence gathered by officers who have ties to the community should be the top goal of the department. Technology is an important tool, but it’s easy to lose sight of the benefits of having cops who know the street and are able sniff out problems before they start.

The so-called Millenial Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was captured by alert customs agents in Port Angeles. More recently, top-notch investigative work led to the arrest of the man accused of murdering Jason Ferrari in his car in Madrona. While the investigation was certainly helped by the use of technology, following leads and interviewing potential witnesses created the breaks that showed detectives where to look. Gang unit officers also supplied key information that helped break the case. This is time-consuming work that takes patience, professionalism, and the ability to talk to people who generally don’t like talking to cops. 

But here’s the problem, according to this veteran cop: increasingly, younger officers coming up are less able to engage people in a conversation, and seem to have little interest in taking the time to understand and get to know the community they police. Of course there are exceptions, but it is enough of a concern that it was one of the first things brought up in my interview.

Think about a group of twenty-somethings at a coffee shop, sitting together, texting, and hardly speaking a word to each other. The new recruits for SPD come from this generation. While this is by no means the biggest problem in the department, it deserves attention just as we as a society need to understand the impact of technology on community.  When you consider the components that make neighborhoods safe, a communal “sense of place,” neighbors knowing each other and reporting suspicious activity, the virtual world will not get us there. Neighborhoods are by definition geographic places inhabited by human beings in close proximity.

To its credit, SPD has been working for some time to go “back to the future” and give officers the chance to get out of their cars, walk beats, and get to know the neighborhoods they police. This is a real challenge given shrinking budgets and high numbers of 911 calls requiring responses. The recent settlement with DOJ will further challenge this strategy, something the mayor continues to highlight.

The other huge problem for the department is leadership. Unfortunately, the leadership mantel is now worn by the Guild President Rich O’Neill. This is truly a terrible situation. O’Neill’s job is to negotiate the best possible deal for his membership and stand up for officers. O’Neill was absent from the press conference.

Because of the lack of trust in the command staff, the Guild’s insistence on protecting every officer no matter what, and weak political leadership by elected officials, we are seeing an inability for the department to fire bad officers. And let’s face it; with over 1,200 officers there are going to be some recruits who slip through the training process and shouldn’t be cops. This is a common problem in the public sector and can only be solved if the unions and management are able to build trust and have the same goal – a highly skilled and professional workforce compensated fairly.

Officers on the street will tell you how much they hate bad cops because they make everyone look bad. Not having the ability to move people on who can’t make the grade hurts morale for the whole department. But to do this, you need to have durable trust that everyone is trying to accomplish what’s best for the citizens and officers. Such trust can be fragile. There is no better example of how fragile trust can be then the case of Officer James Lee.

The case of James Lee is an example of how trust can be shattered by simple thoughtlessness by the command staff and how it can ripple through the department. Officer Lee was involved in a buy bust that went wrong. The officers were assaulted and Lee chased a suspect into a mini-mart. The camera shows Lee take the suspect down to the ground with a kick. The suspect has his hands out appearing to be compliant. What the camera doesn’t show is Lee commanding the suspect to get on the ground numerous times. Remember: Lee doesn’t know if the suspect is armed. He is trying to control the situation quickly and forcefully to prevent injury.

The video of the incident created a public uproar. City Attorney Pete Holmes decided to file criminal charges against Lee. SPD Commanders visited Lee to tell him what is happening. Lee believed his career to be most likely over. When the City Attorney finally has an expert review the use of force report, Lee is found to have performed according to training and all charges are dropped. Lee then receives a letter telling him he is reinstated and will not face any criminal charges and is fully exonerated.  This time, though, there was no visit by anyone from the command staff. No call, no visit. Nothing.

Ask any officer on the street and they know this story. It will be the subject of many roll call conversations.

In times like these, the question naturally arises about "de-policing." Are officers being unusually wary and not engaging those on the street that they know are up to no good? You have to ask yourself what you would do in their shoes. First, you know that engagement could lead to physical confrontation that could lead to your name being splashed across the front page. Second, you know that even if you arrest the persons, they will be out and back on the street in a few days. Finally, you know that the command staff, elected officials, and the public will assume the worst. So, is engaging a small time street dealer worth losing your house and putting your family through hell?

Hopefully, the settlement with DOJ will allow everyone to move forward. But the mayor, Chief Diaz, and the city council should start leading efforts to gain the trust of the rank and file and then work to fire cops who don’t perform to expectations while supporting and lauding those that do. Guild President O’Neill needs to tell his constituency, the officers, and the Guild Board, that the world has changed. The Guild needs to be a partner in identifying officers who need more training, those who need help with issues related to job stress, and those that shouldn’t be cops.

For now, the political wrangling at the top is over. But we still have serious crime problems that can only be solved if we can trust each other that we are pulling in the same direction. Our elected officials and command staff at SPD have a long way to go in rebuilding trust in the department and the community. Maybe at the next press conference the public will get to hear from someone who actually makes arrests. That would truly be a kumbaya moment.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.