Proposal could shake up top Seattle police ranks

To make Seattle more attractive to police chief candidates, a City Council committee is discussing whether to change rules that require high-level posts to be filled from within the department.
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City Councilman Bruce Harrell, during an interview with Crosscut writers and editors

To make Seattle more attractive to police chief candidates, a City Council committee is discussing whether to change rules that require high-level posts to be filled from within the department.

Seattle’s police chief would gain the power to appoint assistant and deputy chiefs from outside the department if the City Council approves a bill that will be discussed in a committee meeting on Wednesday. A city ordinance currently allows only captains and lieutenants from inside the force to be appointed to the high-ranking positions.

Approving the bill would significantly expand the police chief's staffing options, potentially making the job more attractive to top candidates from around the country. The measure could also help Mayor-elect Ed Murray, who has promised to concentrate on police reform, public safety and finding a replacement for interim chief Jim Pugel.

Murray has said that he’d like to conduct a national police chief search. Members of the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee say the rule change will permit a new chief to bring along colleagues or top candidates from elsewhere when he or she takes command of Seattle’s department. And committee chair Bruce Harrell believes that outsiders could help the department move through the federally mandated police reform process that began last year.

“Implementing this legislation would lead to more robust competition for vital positions in the police department command staff,” a council staff fiscal note attached to the proposed bill says. “It will also help attract top candidates in future police chief searches as it gives the Chief of Police more flexibility in choosing his or her top staff.”

Harrell, who sponsored the bill along with Councilmember Tim Burgess, suggested that it might be a good time for officers from other cities to join the department’s upper ranks.

“Many of the top brass [here], nearly all of them, have been in this department for decades and decades,” Harrell said. “We are now in a culture of change and many of the policies we are trying to change were no doubt developed and implemented by those people.”

The committee will not vote on the legislation at Wednesday’s meeting, Harrell said, adding that he had reached out to mayor-elect Murray, the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild and the Seattle Police Management Association for comments on the proposal. He also stressed that changing the ordinance would not preclude future police chiefs from hiring assistant and deputy chiefs from within the department. “I personally believe in succession planning,” he said. “You want to be able to groom from within, and retain people.”

Representatives for the police officer's guild and the police management association, which represents lieutenants and captains in the department, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

The federally mandated reform process began last year after a 2011 Department of Justice investigation unearthed widespread excessive force violations by Seattle Police Department officers. In mid-November, the federal monitor overseeing the reforms criticized the department for moving the process along too slowly.

“The department," Harrell said, "has never in its entire history been under this kind of scrutiny, so how they react will determine who they become.”

Last week the department demoted two assistant chiefs to the rank of captain.

Referring to potential deputy and assistant police chief hires from outside the department, Harrell said, “There could be a superstar from another jurisdiction that has a proven track record on constitutional policing."

Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn's appointment of Police Chief John Diaz from the ranks of the Seattle department followed what was generally regarded as an unimpressive or even failed national search for a chief. Harrell and Burgess campaigned in the mayoral primary earlier this year. But after their candidacies failed they both supported Murray in his run against McGinn.


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