Amid SPD outsider hiring, a detente between Chief O'Toole and unions

By David Kroman
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Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole. Credit: Alex Garland

By David Kroman

When Mayor Ed Murray brought in Kathleen O’Toole to head the Seattle Police Department, he did so with the goal of ushering in the department’s federally mandated reforms. On Friday, O’Toole announced her largest step toward that goal so far, hiring four new assistant chiefs, as well as creating a chief information technology officer.

“This change will bring a greater sense of urgency and more energy [to the department],” O'Toole said at a Wednesday press conference at City Hall.

Murray also announced that the city and the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA) had come to an agreement regarding the SPMA’s unfair-labor-practice complaint and said the challenge had been dropped.

The unanswered question of the morning was what will happen to demoted assistant chiefs Mike Washburn, Robin Clark, Tag Gleason and Paul McDonagh. President of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) Ron Smith admitted finding a place for them may be difficult.

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Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole and mayor Ed Murray. Credit: Alex Garland

Whether out of respect for the demoted assistant chiefs or to convey that more work needs to be done, Mayor Murray and Council President Tim Burgess took to the podium with a noticeably somber tone. However, Councilmember Bruce Harrell and O’Toole took no such approach, cracking jokes, visibly excited about the changes to come.

The shift is being referred to as a “shake up” by local news outlets, but while the step is certainly a large one, it was not unexpected.

Retired Judge Anne Levinson is the Civilian Auditor for the Office of Professional Accountability, a civilian oversight committee that has advised O'Toole on the police reform process. “It had been anticipated that in her first several months she would move forward with changing the leadership team to make sure she had the necessary mix of skills and experience to accomplish the critical priorities,” Levinson said in an interview Tuesday.

Today’s announcement may not be surprising, but it is significant. O'Toole's new hires mark the first time in 35 years that the SPD has hired outsiders rather than promoting internally.

In 1978, an ordinance was passed that required all promotions, without exception, to come from inside the police department. The ordinance was created out of fear that newly appointed police chief Patrick Fitzsimmons would replace local officers with colleagues from New York.

The ordinance also solidified SPD’s hierarchical structure, requiring that officers move their way up the chain. A lieutenant, therefore, rarely leapfrogged to a higher position.

Council president Tim Burgess was among the first to question the ordinance, especially in the wake of the federal mandate that the SPD make significant reforms. There was concern that hiring exclusively from inside the department would create a sort of cultural stagnation.

In January 2014, the City Council replaced the old rules with a new ordinance, allowing O’Toole to hire from outside departments and promote from lower ranks.

“We introduced that ordinance,” Burgess said in a statement, “because we wanted the Chief of Police to be able to recruit the best possible candidates for these very important positions – from inside or outside the department.”

Quickly thereafter, the SPMA brought their complaint. Members expressed concern that unchecked hiring from the outside could be a slippery slope towards complete replacement of the force. SPMA president Captain Michael Edwards maintained that they were not wholly opposed to outsiders, but the organization brought the complaint because they felt they were left out of negotiations. “The SPMA was always willing to sit down and negotiate,” he said.

The complaint has been dropped in a light of a new leadership development program, supported by both SPMA and the city, the goal being to foster the best candidates for jobs within the SPD. “The leadership development program is designed to increase and improve the competency of our people, not just here but elsewhere,” said Edwards.

Though the new program doesn't completely alleviate Edwards' concerns, he expressed optimism that it will encourage a balance of internal and external hiring. “If we build the right program,” he said, “our candidates will be able to compete against anybody. I wish this could have happened a year ago and avoided all that, but it’s good this is happening now.”

And if that balance is not struck? “We’ll go to legal arbitration.”

Meet the assistant chiefs

The new assistant chiefs are Lieutenant Lesley Cordner and Captain Steve Wilske of the SPD, Superintendant Robert Merner of the Boston Police Department and Perry Tarrant of the Gang Free Initiative in Yakima. O’Toole also created a new position, the Chief Information Officer, filled by a former Amazon vice president, Greg Russell.

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SPD Lieutenant Lesley Cordner. Credit: Alex Garland

Cordner has been with the SPD since 1989, working in, among other areas, patrol, investigations, domestic violence and, most recently, as aide to Chief O’Toole. She is an interesting case in that she is moving from the lower rank of lieutenant to assistant chief.

Said SPOG's Smith, “It’s a bold move for Police Chief O’Toole. But I have no concerns.”

“I would not have submitted my application if I did not think I was up to it,” said Cordner.

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SPD's Steve Wilske. Credit: Alex Garland

Wilske has been with the SPD for 28 years as a patrol officer, field training officer, commander of parts of the SWAT team, member of the Crime Scene Investigations Unit, captain and, since February of last year, commander for the Southwest Precinct. Smith endorsed him heartily. “I know a lot of guys that will be sad to see him move,” he said.

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Boston PD Superintendent Robert Merner. Credit: Alex Garland

Merner spent 28 years with the Boston Police Department in some of its more grizzly-sounding departments: The Anti-Gang Violence Unit, the Organized Crime Unit, the Youth Violence Unit and the Homicide Unit. Twenty-two of his 28 years were spent in investigations. Merner earned four Boston Police Department Medals of Honor. Although O’Toole, also a former Boston officer, knew Merner, she contends that he did not make her aware of his application until he was already a finalist. According to O’Toole, he wanted the job on merit alone.

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Perry Tarrant of Yakima. Credit: Alex Garland

Perry Tarrant started his career in law enforcement as a patrol officer, before moving on to positions in SWAT, bomb squad and canine. Eventually, he took on the coordination of the City of Yakima’s Gang Free Initiative, where he’s been since.

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Chief IT Officer Greg Russell. Credit: Alex Garland

Russell moved from Scotland to the U.S. in 1995. It wasn't just his Scottish accent that made him seem a little out of place next to the officers in uniform: He has no experience in law enforcement. Russell initially actually declined the job, before calling back to accept six days later. He has worked in technology, with Amazon and Cisco as a Chief Information Officer and overseeing corporate applications, enterprise data warehouse and IT. He will be in charge of IT for the department, a particularly relevant role with the introduction of police-worn body cameras.

Where will the former assistant chiefs go?

Of the former assistant chiefs, only Washburn and McDonagh attended Wednesday’s conference. All four were thanked by Harrell and O'Toole at Wednesday's press conference for their loyalty and service.

Council President Tim Burgess said that the significance of O'Toole's decision should not be placed on the former assistant chiefs' demotions. Rather, the move sets a precedent that O'Toole will be, in his words, "a different kind of leader." For Burgess, "The key message [to the department] is that you can’t sit around and do nothing."

The former assistant chiefs' demotions are, in some ways, an awkward result of interim chief Harry Bailey’s leadership. Bailey made the decision to permanently appoint his leadership cabinet, rather than assigning his personally-selected assistant chiefs an interim title as well.

Now, depending on what McDonagh, Washburn, Clark and Gleason decide to do, SPD may be faced with an uncomfortable situation. Within the department, there is something known informally as “bumping,” which means that when someone is demoted, they return to their previous level of authority. All four former assistant chiefs were previously captains, so they are technically entitled to once again be captains.

But SPOG’s Smith said the SPD's captain positions are already filled. Those captains, he said, cannot be pushed out of their jobs without legitimate cause. “We have a glut of captains,” he said. One solution may be to create new positions or to assign the former assistant chiefs to a command position.

One thing for sure, according to Smith, is that they cannot descend below the rank of captain without being terminated for just cause. “You have to come up with something,” said Smith. “I’m glad I’m not in charge of that.”

There have been some instances of officers being given “special projects” as a part of their demotion. In August of 2014, then-Assistant Chief Joe Kessler was replaced by McDonagh. He returned to his rank of captain, assigned with handling special projects for SPD COO Mike Wagers.

When asked if these were just a way to push officers to the side, Smith said, “I’ve been aware of some special projects that aren’t legitimate,” but said he doesn’t believe that will be the case here.

O’Toole’s announcement has been anticipated for some time. So why now as opposed to last fall? “I think the timing of this is just right,” said O’Toole.

With a slight glance toward Seattle Police Monitor Merrick J. Bobb in the back she added, “We wanted to get it right.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.