Of the three finalists for Seattle police chief, Ronald Davis might at first glance seem the unlikeliest pick, but those who have worked with Davis say it's no surprise he's in the running for the Seattle job

Share story

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Of the three finalists for Seattle police chief, Ronald Davis might at first glance seem the unlikeliest pick.

He heads a department of just 39 sworn officers in this Bay Area town of 33,000 — not much bigger than Walla Walla.

But those who have worked with Davis say it’s no surprise he’s in the running for the Seattle job, just as he recently was runner-up for the police-chief job in New Orleans.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Davis, 46, is regarded by many as a rising star who proved his crime-fighting mettle during 19 years with the Oakland Police Department, rising to captain before taking the East Palo Alto job in 2005.

Here, Davis is widely credited with cutting violent crime in a town once dubbed the nation’s per-capita murder capital. He has restored community trust and morale in what was a deeply troubled police department.

Davis has done it by being seemingly present everywhere in the town — holding regular “meet the chief” chats, talking with youth groups and at senior centers. A local weekly newspaper called him “the people’s chief.”

“Before he came, there wasn’t much trust in the police department. That has completely changed,” said East Palo Alto Mayor David Woods.

Davis also has won a reputation as a national expert and critic of racial profiling and has been tapped as an adviser for troubled police departments across the country.

“I consider Ron one of the great thinkers in American policing. He has an insightful understanding of the role of police in a democratic society,” said Robert Warshaw, former police chief of Rochester, N.Y., and former deputy drug czar, who has worked with Davis as a consultant for police departments.

The son of a Philadelphia cop, Davis says he always wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. After high school he did a four-year stint in the Air Force before being hired as an Oakland police officer in 1985.

Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said Davis won respect as a tough street cop.

“He was a stud out there. He’s no joke,” Arotzarena said.

Little fear

Davis took dangerous assignments, including undercover narcotics busts. In 1988, a cocaine dealer fired a .38-caliber revolver at Davis and missed, but the gun was so close that Davis got powder burns on his face.

Two years later, Davis and another officer shot and wounded a 15-year-old suspect who pointed a .22-caliber pistol at them.

Davis was awarded two medals of merit from the department, one for organizing a “reverse” drug sting in which undercover police targeted mostly white drug buyers who drove into black neighborhoods to buy cocaine.

“We were picking up doctors and lawyers,” he recalled. “It really showed that the problem is not just rooted in a bad neighborhood; that it is more of a global problem.”

A burly, charismatic man, Davis rose through the ranks and was promoted to captain in 1999.

He ran the department’s police academy for a time and was named area commander for East Oakland, where he supervised 160 officers and staff covering a part of town that saw 40-plus murders a year.

Davis said he saw warning signs of problems in the department and spoke out against lax supervision of special units that roamed the city targeting suspected drug dealers.

His fears were confirmed in 2000 when Oakland was hit with the “Riders” scandal, involving a rogue band of cops accused of routinely planting evidence and beating up suspects. The officers were fired; one fled the U.S. and has never been located. The scandal led to a $10.5 million civil settlement and put the department under court supervision.

“He did speak up,” John Burris, a lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the case, said of Davis. “I thought he embraced the changes much more so than others.”

His willingness to admit to problems made him “not so well liked by a lot of officers,” Burris said.

Davis said most officers came around when they realized the department’s reputation had been sullied by the Riders case.

Davis was named chief of the East Palo Alto Police Department in 2005, taking an assignment that would challenge anyone.

Midway between San Jose and San Francisco, this town of just 2.5 square miles has long been known as a pocket of poverty and violent crime despite being near the wealth of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. (Google’s campus is just a few miles away.)

Historically heavily African American, the town today is more than 60 percent Hispanic, with sizable Pacific Islander and black populations.

East Palo Alto has never fully lived down being named the nation’s “murder capital” in 1992, when 42 homicides gave it the highest per-capita rate in the country.

When Davis arrived, the department had been scandalized by its own problems with officer misconduct. Two officers were under criminal indictment. With the lowest pay and benefits in the state, the department didn’t attract high-quality officers.

“Here is what the reputation came up to be: If you got fired anywhere in the Bay Area as a police officer and you wanted to get back into law enforcement, go to East Palo Alto. Other agencies would refuse to work with us, and if they came in would not communicate with us. There was no trust,” Davis said.

Davis put in place new rules on professionalism — including what he calls the “five deadly sins,” such as lying and discrimination, as grounds for firing. He banned visible tattoos and put in an anonymous complaint system for citizens.

Perhaps most significantly, Davis returned criminal investigations to the department, which had previously contracted out its detective work to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.

The department moved from a cramped quarters in the basement of City Hall to its own portable buildings and replaced its hand-me-down cars with new cruisers. Officers got a 15 percent pay raise and better benefits.

Working with the FBI and other police agencies, the department has busted up notorious local gangs responsible for much of the worst violence, including the so-called East Palo Alto “Taliban.”


Davis has also shown himself a peacemaker, working with ethnic-community leaders to tamp down violence.

“There are two sides to his leadership. He’s approachable, he’ll engage with people, but he’s a solid leader and he’s not afraid of confrontation,” said Pastor Joe Prado of the East Palo Alto Apostolic Assembly.

In 2007, an argument between two teenage girls turned deadly when their male relatives stepped in and started shooting. One of the girls was killed, the other wounded.

Relatives and friends escalated the violence in what turned into a dispute between local Tongans and Samoans. There were a dozen shootings in three weeks.

Davis met with the leaders of the Pacific Islander community, who called the families of the girls together for a sit-down at church. The families reconciled and agreed to a cease-fire. “All the shooting stopped. Right there on the spot,” Davis said.

The town still has more than its share of violent crime. It’s already reported four homicides this year, compared with five in Seattle.

Gunshot sensors

Gunshot sensors, which quickly alert police to all shots fired in the city, thanks to a grant secured by Davis, typically report 120 shots fired a month.

But most serious crimes are down about 16 percent over the last two years. There were eight murders in 2009, compared with 15 in 2005.

“At the end of the day, the guy has absolutely done what we hired him to do,” said Larry Moody, a longtime East Palo Alto resident and school-board member. “And he has had to do this all under a climate of almost no budget, no infrastructure.”

Davis has made up for a continually tight city budget by landing millions in federal and state grants, and even private donations.

He would face a huge jump in responsibility if hired as Seattle’s next police chief. He’d go from 39 officers and an $11 million budget to overseeing a department of 1,345 sworn officers and a budget of more than $240 million. But Davis and his supporters believe he’s ready.

“Leadership is not measured by the size of your department. It’s measured by the size of the challenges you have faced and your ability to work with others to overcome those challenges,” Davis said.

He said he could have stayed in Oakland and risen further in that larger city, but when a headhunter offered a chance to turn around the most difficult police department in California, he decided to take that challenge.

“Now with those skills I’ve learned, I’m ready to come back to a major department as executive,” he said.

Davis said Seattle’s department has a good reputation, but he would not be afraid to make changes.

“East Palo Alto’s starting point was pretty low. In Seattle the challenge is gonna be that you have a solid organization … the biggest threat to the Seattle Police Department is resting on its laurels, to now be in denial based on success and not forecast risk. To seek for something better is not an indictment of the past.”

If hired, Davis said he would not use Seattle as a steppingstone to the next job. He’d be content to retire here.

“I’ll be there as along as Seattle will have me,” he said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or seattletimes.com“>jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times news researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this report

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.