Seattle's Police Chief search: Smooth sailing ahead
Last week, the integrity of the police accountability process came under question when Chief Harry Bailey was criticized for reversing misconduct findings in several police discipline cases. Mayor Ed Murray, who first supported the Chief, later announced he would ask his special advisor on public safety, Barney Melekian, to lead a group of representatives from law, labor relations, the SPD and the federal monitor to provide a "thorough critical review of all six cases."
I serve as the co-chair, along with former King County Executive Ron Sims, of both Police Chief search committees. If the incident has taught us anything about the Seattle Police Department, it is both that trust is extremely fragile and that there are real longstanding issues with process and procedure that still need to be fixed.
At the same time, as we enter a national Police Chief search, we should remember that, for the first time, there is actually broad agreement from a very diverse set of parties about the direction we need to go and how to get there.
This was not the case four years ago, when I served on the last Police Chief Search panel. At that time, although there was concern and discussion, there was no broad mandate to reform the police department. Just a few years before that search, in 2007, I also served on a police accountability blue-ribbon commission appointed by then-Mayor Greg Nickels.
Sitting alongside people like Jenny Durkan (now U.S. Attorney whose office has put SPD under a consent decree), our panel came up with a list of 29 recommendations, a majority of which were implemented. Unfortunately, some of the thorniest issues — OPA process, use of force policy and biased policing — were never resolved.
Today, we are in a very different place.
1. The Department of Justice consent decree, instituted in 2012, has validated decades of community complaint about these issues. No longer is there debate about whether we need to reform policies and practices—just how to do so.
2. Our new mayor has made police reform a priority. Thanks to the clear and focused cooperation of the U.S. Attorney’s office, the City Attorney’s office, the Mayor and the Council, the parties needed to create reform are finally on the same page instead of fighting amongst themselves about substance or politics. This past week’s events reveal cracks and fissures, but should also increase their resolve to stay focused and aligned in creating change.
3. Community input has been meaningfully integrated into the reform process. The Community Police Commission allows community members to provide formal input and recommendations for reform. And the consent decree mandates that the DOJ stay involved for two full years after reforms are made to make sure that they are both a) working and b) fair to both the community and the police department.
4. The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) has a new president and a new opportunity to show that they too want to be engaged in meaningful reform. The vast majority of police officers are smart, dedicated people who signed up for the force because they want to do a service to their communities, but today the morale of SPD, from all accounts, is at an all-time low.
Officers want to be treated with dignity and respect just as community members do. Many that I have spoken to are aching for permanent leadership that can fix the rifts, rectify bad processes and rebuild morale and trust across the department and the city. Ron Smith, the incoming President of SPOG, says he wants to push forward on reform; that that is what will serve the Guild’s members most. We should hold him accountable to those words and give him a chance to prove himself.
5. There is widespread agreement and deeper understanding among both community and police that if we want meaningful reform, we must change policies and procedures as well as culture. These things are integrally tied together — discipline and accountability become a way of changing culture — and consistent leadership up and down the chain of command will be essential. We need to be ready to re-examine what we have in place and throw it out if it is not working. That takes leadership and commitment from everyone.
This is the environment in which our police chief search is taking place. The larger Community Advisory Committee has already finished its work, facilitating seven community forums across the city to gather input, and providing criteria for the next police chief based on that input. That effort will feed into the work of the smaller search committee process, which has just begun and will result in the recommendation of three top candidates.
This time around, we have all the building blocks in place for real reform. There are new policies in place around use of force, “terry” stops and biased policing that will change what happens on the streets. A majority of beleaguered officers are ready to follow a real leader who wants to bring back respect and support to the work that they do every day. Seattle residents are engaged and want the best for their communities. Our Mayor has made police reform a centerpiece of his Administration — and will have to deliver if he is to be elected to another term. And, perhaps most importantly, the Department of Justice will not leave Seattle until it is satisfied that we have indeed reformed ourselves.
Now, all we need is the right Police Chief — a man or woman of tremendous integrity and courageous, visionary leadership who is willing to institute real culture change from top to bottom. We need someone who is as comfortable in front of the community or the media as they are with their officers; someone with a laser-like focus on what is good for Seattle. There are candidates across the country who will see this opportunity as the leadership and legacy opportunity of a life-time. We welcome their applications.