Last month, Seattle voters chose a new mayor who campaigned on a promise to reform the Seattle Police Department. And, in fact, throughout his mayoral campaign, Ed Murray repeatedly emphasized that appointing Seattle’s next police chief would be the single most important decision that he would make as mayor.
We couldn’t agree more. It’s because that decision is so important that we hope that Mayor-elect Murray will make a bold choice for Seattle’s next police chief: a candidate from outside the department and a national leader for reform.
If this feels like déjà vu, it’s because we’ve been here before. Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn made similar comments promising bold reform four years ago. But McGinn’s search for a police chief was a mess: One candidate dropped out and another was not ready for a large department.
When the City Council pushed to reopen the search, McGinn pressed on. The third candidate, John Diaz — who had spent his entire career in the Seattle Police Department — was simply the last man standing.
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McGinn’s botched search would haunt him for the rest of his term.
In the months leading up to and following Diaz’s appointment, several videos surfaced showing Seattle police officers using excessive force against minority suspects. Less than a year later, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division formally opened an investigation against the police department.
By December 2011, the Justice Department confirmed what many in the community had claimed for years: that Seattle police had engaged in a “pattern and practice” of excessive force, particularly against minorities.
But instead of embracing the Department of Justice’s efforts to reform the police department, McGinn and his police chief fought them every step of the way — alienating the City Council, the City Attorney and the public.
Just a couple weeks ago, Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing the consent decree between the police department and the Justice Department, sharply criticized the police department for “intransigence,” and expressed grave doubts about whether Seattle would be able to achieve “full and effective compliance.”
Given these stakes, it’s absolutely crucial that Murray make the right choice for his chief. As he mulls his options, there are three things that he ought to consider in order to make a clean break from the past.
First, learn from McGinn’s mistakes and embrace national models for reform. McGinn consistently avoided working with City Council members, like Tim Burgess, who wanted to embrace a collaborative model for reform or develop a clear and transparent set of guidelines for cooperation with the Justice Department. McGinn constantly bickered with those who would have been critical to any meaningful and lasting change.
Las Vegas’ model shows how cooperating with the Department of Justice can help usher in real reform. Like Seattle, Las Vegas needed to structurally reform how it reviewed officers’ use of force (including firearm usage) and how to better train its officers to police an urban landscape.
Leaders in Las Vegas, primarily Chief Douglas Gillespie, proactively reached out to the Department of Justice before a consent decree was ever issued. In less than a year, Las Vegas was able to implement 56 of the 80 recommendations that the Justice Department suggested. Cooperation bred success.
It’s not too late for Seattle to cooperate with the Justice Department.
Second, choose an outsider. The last two police chiefs — including the current interim police Chief Jim Pugel — came from within the Seattle Police Department. But proximity breeds familiarity, and that same familiarity makes it hard to make the tough choices that meaningful reform requires.
For instance, the federal monitor’s most recent report describes a “struggle” at the department’s “upper command level for control” over how it would comply with the consent decree. The same leadership that’s dragging its feet over complying with the decree can’t be expected to produce the next police chief.
While most leaders within the department are great officers, complying with the consent decree requires innovation, not stagnation. Few organizations can maintain a sense of innovation and excellence when the same individuals remain in control of the levers of power. Our police department is no different.
Interim Chief Pugel deserves credit for making several tough decisions necessary to implement reform. In particular, Pugel’s decision to demote two assistant chiefs has sent a strong message, both internally and externally, that change is inevitable.
But systemic and deep reform will ultimately fall short as long as the chief is hobbled by ties to internal constituencies that have resisted change.
It’s simply time for fresh blood at the top.
And third, whomever Mayor-elect Murray chooses, we hope that person understands and embraces procedural justice. Procedural justice acknowledges that our criminal justice system can’t work if communities aren’t cooperating with law enforcement to keep order. But before any meaningful cooperation can occur, officers must be seen as legitimate actors in their neighborhoods.
A police chief concerned about procedural justice won’t define success simply by whether crime has dropped, but also by whether police officers are showing respect for the citizens they are sworn to protect, including arrestees.
For instance, curious bystanders who wish to observe their police officers in public shouldn’t be threatened with arrest under the obstruction statute. Broadly, the chief should implement a new training system on legitimacy throughout the force — similar to trainings conducted in Chicago — and reinvigorate and organize neighborhood and minority advisory councils.
Fostering cooperation between law enforcement and communities is the difference between a well-functioning police force and a dysfunctional one.
Murray has a big decision ahead of him. We hope that he chooses someone who sees civilian oversight as an opportunity to highlight accountability, rather than an inconvenient obstacle to overcome. We also hope it’s someone who wants to proactively engage the Justice Department, not bicker with it.
Most important, we hope Seattle’s next police chief is someone who can win back the hearts and minds of the communities the department polices.
David A. Perez is a constitutional law attorney in Seattle. Maurice Classen, a former King County deputy prosecutor, is a program officer with the MacArthur Foundation. The views expressed are their own.