Pugel's video: Should "Mocking the Homeless" be a career limiter?

Seattle's new interim police chief says he's sorry about the offensive video he made in the eighties. Is that enough?
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Interim police chief Jim Pugel

Seattle's new interim police chief says he's sorry about the offensive video he made in the eighties. Is that enough?
When should a profoundly career limiting move cease to be career limiting? That question comes with the Seattle Police Department's release via blog post (classy) of a 1986 “attempt at humor” music video that shows interim chief Jim Pugel “mocking the homeless.” The video features cops in homeless drag singing “Under the Viaduct” set to the tune of The Drifters classic “Under the Boardwalk.”
No need to watch the tacky video clip. It deserves no more clicks. “Mocking the homeless” is all you really need to know. It is beyond tacky, replete with shots of oozing wounds. Energy spent critiquing it, figuring out the precise degree to which it offends or pondering whether time has dimmed it's repugnance is beside the point. The main question is whether someone who once thought it was OK to openly mock the homeless, or who may not have given it any thought at all, should be awarded the permanent top spot in the department.
That Pugel had the stomach to release it is commendable, and reports that he spoke to some homelessness organization leaders beforehand suggest appropriate sensitivity now on his part. But fraternity-style mea culpas years later don't generally fix this kind of thing well. And repeating apologies over and over doesn't fix them any better when the scope of the original cluelessness is so mind-bending.
To get a sense of why this is so, try a thought experiment: Replace the word “homeless” with a few other groups and check your reaction.
“Seattle police chief released and apologized for a video he made years ago that mocked the mentally ill / that mocked African Americans / that mocked special needs children / that mocked gays and lesbians / that mocked war veterans...”  
Years later, how does it feel? All better now if the perp of such offensiveness says he is still really, really sorry for the thing he and his pals did, but never told you about for nearly three decades?
Pugel may have matured to become an excellent cop, and perhaps a capable manager and leader. Time will tell as to his interim leadership. What he does on this issue and how he advances the department's effort to reconnect with the community it has just horrified — once again — will reveal more.
In his statement, Pugel says, “I believe in social justice. I have a track record that mirrors this... On my own and with my family, I’ve spent countless hours volunteering at downtown social service providers. This reflects both my personal and professional values. As a police department, we have much work to do to strengthen our relationships in the community. Sometimes that means addressing an ugly piece of our history head on.”
If Pugel means what he says about his personal growth, enlightenment and commitment to social justice, it's fair to ask what his new plan for the SPD is on this issue. Reducing the number of homeless individuals around the city would surely reduce SPD's workloads and could pioneer improved community engagement by the department across the city. If the issue is core to how SPD officers spend their time, the department can step up their work in the area.
What will Pugel do that's new on the issue?

But in the coming search for a new permanent Chief, it's also fair for such an obviously career-limiting move to remain just that. Particularly, given a police department in need of inspiring leaders who don't carry foul smelling baggage or stoke the glowing embers of old internal battles.


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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.