MESA, Ariz. — A few days before his first interview for the job of chief of the Seattle Police Department, Mesa, Ariz., Police Chief Frank Milstead flew up to scout the city and found himself downtown chatting up a trio of bicycle officers outside of Niketown.
They talked awhile before he formally introduced himself and explained his interest in being their chief. What happened next, he says, gave him a new understanding of the depth of problems he will be facing if he gets the job.
“One of the officers shook my hand and said, ‘Well, at least I’ll be able to say I met the chief if you get the job,’ ” Milstead recalled.
The Seattle Police Department isn’t broken, Milstead said in a recent lengthy interview. But he believes it’s broken down,
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its officers misunderstood and mistrusted in the community and without leadership or a clear mission from headquarters.
Milstead believes he can fix all of that, and bring the department into compliance with a federal consent-decree through honest communication, commitment, technology and good old-fashioned leadership.
“Neither the department nor the people of Seattle deserve what has happened,” he said. “A lack of leadership is what put them there.”
Milstead, a big, affable man with a quick grin and an Arizona tan, believes that police work, when done right, “is the most noble calling.”
What has been happening in Seattle — pointing to videotaped incidents of officers using questionable force or racially charged language — is something less than that.
“I believe my personality and my leadership style fit the needs of Seattle,” he said. “There is a need for someone who can communicate and somebody who understands police culture.”
And that is something, he says, that is literally in his DNA. His father, Ralph Milstead, was a legendary Arizona lawman who led the state’s Department of Public Safety during one of its most turbulent decades.
Milstead, 51, has hardly lived in his father’s long shadow.
Before being named chief of the 800-officer Mesa Police Department in 2010, he spent 25 years with the Phoenix Police Department, where he was head of the major crime bureau and the homeland-security division and retired as a commander.
When he took the Mesa job, the city’s crime rates were at historic lows. Milstead said he focused his officers, reached out to the community and leveraged local businesses and has been able to drive them even lower, to levels not seen since the 1960s.
At the same time, he has brought in technology that helps focus crime-prevention efforts and gathers data on officers that, if brought to Seattle, would go a long way toward satisfying a federal court-imposed agreement to address issues of excessive force and evidence of biased policing uncovered by a 2012 Department of Justice civil-rights investigation.
This includes eventually equipping all officers with body cameras. Nearly 50 Mesa patrol officers wear them now and another 30 are about to be deployed. Milstead has permission to eventually equip several hundred officers with the devices.
Milstead said complaints against officers have dropped nearly 60 percent since the cameras have been used.
Milstead credits his ability to persuade local businesses to provide services and equipment to improve the department. For example, the body cameras the department is using are made by Taser International, headquartered in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz., which has been using the Mesa officers’ experiences to improve the products in exchange for their use.
Milstead says he’ll pursue similar “strategic partnerships” in Seattle to resolve some of the technology and software problems plaguing the SPD.
Milstead said he has closely reviewed the consent decree, with its detailed policies for use of force and detention, and wondered, “What is in there that shouldn’t have been there in the first place?”
In a proposed five-year plan for the Seattle Police Department, Milstead ambitiously expects the department to be close to compliance with the consent decree within the first year and that the department would be done with the Department of Justice by year three.
Citywide surveys will be conducted yearly to measure how the SPD is being perceived and he and his executive staff will engage in “robust” community outreach to set an example for officers. The chief promised to personally meet every department employee in the first year. By the fifth year, the department will have new uniforms and a new “look” as part of a plan to cement the changes he expects.
“Those who are not motivated or fail to embrace the change will be removed from the department,” Milstead said.
By year three, he said, “Cultural change will be apparent and notably evident in respect to application of force and biased policing.”
Milstead knows officers make mistakes, because he made them. In 1986, as a 22-year-old rookie patrol officer in Phoenix, he was given a two-week unpaid suspension for shoving a handcuffed prisoner with his forearm.
He was in a foot pursuit of a robbery and assault suspect when he jumped a fence to find the man pointing a gun at him. The weapon misfired and the man was arrested and handcuffed. Milstead said the suspect kept mouthing off, and he lost it.
“I learned something about myself that day,” Milstead said. The worst of it, he said, was telling his father. “I am living proof you can rehabilitate an officer, that you can learn from your mistakes.”
Some officers, however, “outperform” the disciplinary system and they need to be dealt with fairly and swiftly. He described Seattle’s disciplinary system — which is under review by the mayor and the city’s Community Police Commission — as “goofy,” with confusing findings and long investigations.
Last year, Mesa settled a gender-discrimination lawsuit filed by a female assistant chief who claimed harassment. Milstead had fired her just days before she was eligible for her pension.
The assistant chief, Kathy Kirkham, alleged Milstead made an inappropriate remark about her being a single mother. Milstead denies it. Details of the claim and settlement are confidential.
Mesa resides in heavily Republican Maricopa County, home to notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose hard-nosed stance on illegal immigration and controversial treatment of jail inmates has made him a tea-party darling.
But, like the weather, he can’t control politics, Milstead said, and he prefers to leave politics to the politicians.
While Mesa’s chief, Arizona passed a law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect may be in the country illegally. Another law, passed and vetoed in February, gave Arizona businesses the right to refuse service to gays on religious grounds.
Milstead says he’s asked Arpaio and his immigration raiding squads to stay out of Mesa.
“I don’t pretend to understand the madness to Joe’s method,” he said. “But I see no reason to pick a fight with the guy.”
As for the anti-gay bill, “That’s the sort of thing that makes you want to kick yourself out of Arizona politics.”
Still, Milstead says he has pushed boundaries and, based on interviews with the desert city’s business and ethnic communities, he would walk on water if there was enough to be had.
“He’s so approachable,” said Bill Straus, the retiring 13-year director of the Phoenix Anti-Defamation League. He said that while Milstead was in Phoenix he led a squad that targeted anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi gangs even as public attention was focused on immigration and other political issues.
“I can’t say he won’t do something that’s not popular,” Straus said. “But I can tell you it is highly unlikely he’d do anything that is not right.”
Two years ago, Milstead was caught in a maelstrom of controversy when he allowed a female commander and more than a dozen officers to march in uniform in the Phoenix Gay Pride parade.
Milstead himself did not march but said the message was clear. “I mean, we march in the Fiesta Bowl parade. This was the right and legal thing to do. I pushed my clout to the limit.”
Milstead’s father opposed hiring gays as police officers, and it used to be that members of an academy class were asked to leave if they were homosexual or living out of wedlock.
Bill Richardson, a retired Mesa police master patrol officer, detective and freelance writer, said Milstead has succeeded by targeting career criminals and partnering with the communities, both business and ethnic, with measurable success.
“A department that once struggled to see beyond the city limit line and was culturally averse to change and innovation now sets the pace for modern policing in Arizona,” Richardson wrote in a recent column in the local East Valley Tribune.
Milstead recognizes there are differences that can’t be measured by a barometer or on a map. A big one is that Arizona is a right-to-work state where police unions do not engage in collective bargaining. He acknowledges he’s never negotiated with the likes of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild, which engages in take-no-prisoner collective bargaining and has been openly resistant to the consent decree and the need for it.
“All I can say is that there are certain management rights that I cannot give up,” said Milstead, who meets with Mesa’s union chief almost daily.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org