Can a new chief bring SPD into the 21st century?

A new police chief will inherit a department where good people labor amidst leadership, workplace rules and technology from a distant era.
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Seattle and Metro Transit police will step up their public-safety efforts along Third Avenue.

A new police chief will inherit a department where good people labor amidst leadership, workplace rules and technology from a distant era.

What kind of police chief does Seattle need?

A charismatic techie would do.

And how about somebody who combines the attitude and system of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll with the personnel smarts of team GM John Schneider?

The search for the new Seattle Police Department chief is underway and from many angles: In addition to input for citizen committees, department overseers, the city council, consultants and the new mayor, a headhunting firm (yet-to-be-named) will pull out the stops in finding the best candidates. In the meantime, the city is getting ready to put the department in shape to be managed.

Key to that effort, according to former SPD police officer and Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess, will be giving the new gal or guy the tools they need to craft SPD into a modern department.

Burgess and Anne Levinson, the Office of Professional Accountability auditor for the SPD and a former judge and aide to mayors Charles Royer and Norm Rice, came down to Crosscut on Thursday to answer questions about department reforms and process. One thing is clear: They believe a lot has to change to get a department worthy of the 21st century.

Crosscut archive image.
Anne Levinson. Credit: Meryl Schenker

Burgess argues that Seattle missed out on a lot of the urban police reforms of the 1990s and '00s. "We're playing catch-up," he says. "We're way behind." SPD is way behind on police technology — systems and software that help police departments manage resources and focus on zones where most crime takes place. The department, he says, lacks "statistical capability." In addition, the department doesn't have computerized systems that allow it to track police performance and work on accountability at the push of a button.

Burgess and Levinson are also of the opinion that the department management is stagnant and insular. Burgess says that it has accepted mediocrity. What we need, he says, is a culture "inquiry and innovation."

A chief obstacle has been the police unions and laws put in place that restrict the chief's ability to control the command system. Top jobs, by law, have gone to individuals already within the department, based on seniority and personal relationships, not necessarily skill. The city council is moving to break that up. The Public Safety committee has recommended dumping a 35-year-old law so as to allow the police chief to hire his own top brass — insiders or outsiders — based on skill sets and merit, not time on the job. That, it is hoped, will attract a better class of chief candidates.

Another thing Burgess promises is closer scrutiny of the department and its budgeting by the council, getting a better handle on the budget, perhaps going to an outcome-based budgeting system, and perhaps tracking much more closely where and how the dollars are spent. For example, not getting "surprised" that a limited surveillance camera program for the Port of Seattle expanded to include surveillance at places like Alki, setting off a furor. The drone program is another.

The council needs, he says, to pay more attention and show more resolve. He says the council will be fully prepared to vote "no" on the mayor's choice of chief if they have a problem with her or him. Burgess indicated he had some second thoughts about the approval of former Chief John Diaz, but was not quite willing to say it was a mistake.

Another task: challenging Police Guild rules to give the chief more operational flexibility. "The city has given management authority to the unions, and we have to take it back," Burgess promises. "That's going to be a big battle." In other words, finding a new chief is only part of the tack; reforming the department to make it more manageable is another. This comes at a time when the city is filled with a renewed passion for unions. Could make for interesting fights ahead.

Levinson will shortly be issuing her twice-yearly OPA auditor's report, which reviews the department's system of handling formal complaints. She wants the office's purview expanded to include all kinds of claims, lawsuits and complaints that come up regardless of whether a formal complaint has been filed. She also will recommend that the OPA office hire more civilian investigators and create new systems for streamlining the process of resolving problems, including ones that allow officers to admit mistakes or the department to simply apologize for mishandling small situations. In other words, a more comprehensive customer service approach.

All this is toward shaping a department that she envisions would some day have the trust and confidence of all the citizens. It's part of shaping a police force that is not only responsive to crime, but proactive in prevention and targeting the worst problems with the right resources. She thinks modern police officer candidates should be given extra points in hiring for having, say, a social service background, or experience in the Peace Corps. The work of a cop goes beyond responding to 911 calls.

There's also the question of resources. Reforms could be expensive: new computer systems, perhaps better-paid managers, more training for officers. Burgess believes the department is top-heavy with people inside the office and not on the streets. A smart redeployment of personnel, uniformed and civilian, could improve efficiency. He says they have been told that SPD is not "under-resourced" in terms of its budget.

For a more accountable, more humane, more community-focused department to work best, it'll also require the city to address the holes in the social safety net. If you hire social worker cops to handle the mentally ill, they'll have to be able to send them some place to get help. That's an issue for all of Seattle to consider: A new chief can do a lot, but it takes a village outside the department to support the work. It's part of the police reform puzzle that's often overlooked, and it's not an SPD line item.

Burgess and Levinson believe a cultural transformation is not only necessary, but very possible, in part because while the department has a lot of problems — old school and out-of-date attitudes, management structures and technology — they are all fixable with attention, better systems, innovation and resources. This is not a housecleaning, as the city went through in the '60s and '70s, to root out embedded corruption. The fact is that a lot of good work is already being done — good policing and investigative work. But it can be better, and we are legally required by the federal government to make it so.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.