Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel says if he is hired as Seattle's next chief he will take the department to the "next level," but not before listening to what the community wants.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Growing up, Rick Braziel wanted to be a pilot and dreamed of attending the U.S. Air Force Academy.
But less-than-perfect eyesight dashed that hope.
He next considered engineering, until one night, on the spur of the moment, he decided to do something he hadn’t done before: ride along on the night shift with his dad, a Sacramento police officer.
During the shift, the 18-year-old son watched his father provide comfort to a rape victim. “I saw my dad in a completely different light,” says Braziel.
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Moreover, he says, that night he saw himself becoming a police officer.
Now, after 30 years with the Sacramento Police Department — the past two as chief — Braziel is one of three finalists to become Seattle’s next police chief. Mayor Mike McGinn is expected to make the selection sometime after June 2, subject to confirmation by the City Council.
News that Braziel, 50, might leave Sacramento has been greeted with widespread dismay in this government town where the California state Capitol sits.
“I read it in the newspaper and I made an appointment with my psychiatrist,” said Fran Barker while sitting at a meeting last week of a citizen advisory committee formed by Braziel. An African-American woman, she described herself as a community activist for 52 years.
The refrain from others is similar: We would hate to see him leave. He has earned the right to consider another challenge. Seattle would be lucky to get him.
“This is a special guy,” said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star, who described Braziel as a “world-class” police chief.
“First-rate. Smart guy. Engaged. Personable. Easy to get along with. Very even-keeled,” said McGregor Scott, who served as U.S. attorney in Sacramento from 2003 to 2009, citing Braziel’s cooperation with federal law enforcement.
Softening the blow is that Braziel didn’t go looking for the Seattle job. An executive-search firm hired by Seattle came to him, seeing him as a good match for the position.
When his name surfaced in April as a candidate for the Seattle job, Braziel took pains to say he loves the Sacramento department and was not looking to get out, according to news reports.
He told reporters that police-chief jobs in major cities come along only every five to 10 years and that the “timing is right, the opportunity is there,” The Sacramento Bee newspaper reported.
Braziel has carved out a reputation as an innovative law-enforcement leader who listens to the community before making decisions.
“He’s in the community. He’s open to ideas. It’s not ‘my way or the highway,’ ” said Renée Carter, another member of the citizen advisory committee.
In a city only marginally smaller than Seattle, with fewer police officers, his department has brought down serious crimes such as murders and robberies despite a large gang and parolee population that helped create the second-highest violent-crime rate in California, behind only Oakland.
Serious crimes, referred to as Part 1 offenses, dropped 8 percent in 2008, 7.3 percent in 2009 and are down 7.5 percent so far this year, according to the department. Rather than relying on arrest numbers, the department has approached the effort strategically, using intervention teams, adjusting staffing and targeting the worst offenders, department officials say.
“Everything’s about outcome, not output,” Braziel explained.
The success, Braziel says, can be attributed to three top goals he established, which appear ubiquitously as screen savers on the multitude of computers throughout the technologically advanced department.
With a patrol car as a backdrop, the words on the screen flash: “Sac PD thinks BIG — Bring down Part 1 Crimes. Invest in our employees. Great customer service.”
Working on budget cuts
Braziel has done it despite having to cut $20 million from the budget since taking over as chief.
Facing the potential loss of 67 officers through layoffs, Braziel worked with the police union to avoid that drastic step.
The city’s contract with officers was reopened and extended, pushing back raises to help save jobs. Other steps were taken to protect the retirement pay of senior officers, who agreed to furloughs, and positions were reduced through attrition.
As part of the deal, officers secured two hours of paid time every week to work out in the department’s weight and exercise rooms.
“It was good for both sides,” said Brent Meyer, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association.
Braziel said he is aware Seattle faces financial challenges.
The union and Braziel also have worked on shifting from traditional punishment for officer misconduct to education-based discipline, such as having an officer who was cited for drunken driving teach supervisors how he’d hidden his alcohol problem.
Even though they have their disagreements — three arbitrations are pending over the firing, suspension and demotion of officers — there is mutual respect, said Meyer, who has been an officer in the department since 1998.
“I love working here and I love working for Rick,” Meyer says.
Others say morale has never been higher, despite the tough economic climate.
“It’s a fun place to work,” said David Topaz, a field training officer who has been with the department since 1995 and who served as union president from 2001 to 2005.
Interim City Manager Gus Vina said police officers always want to know if their chief still understands what it means to work the streets.
With Braziel, the answer is yes, Vina said.
Dealing with race issues
Braziel, who goes about his job with the energy he has shown as a marathoner and triathlete, has also won over Sacramento’s highly diverse community, where more than 50 percent of the population is nonwhite.
Braziel has dealt with race issues head on, said Betty Williams, president of the NAACP branch in Sacramento. She cited an incident early this year in which an off-duty white officer displayed his gun while directing a racial slur at an African-American man who was walking near him.
Williams said Braziel immediately informed her of the incident. He also issued a news release.
Criminal charges of brandishing a weapon were filed against the officer.
Braziel says he would have taken this approach to regaining “community trust” in dealing with the recent disclosure of a videotape in Seattle showing two officers kicking a prone Latino man and one of the officers using ethnically inflammatory language.
Carlos González Gutiérrez, consul general at the Mexican Consulate in Sacramento, credits Braziel for encouraging Latinos to report crimes without fear of being asked their immigration status. “He’s willing to do all the necessary steps to build those bridges,” he said.
“We can do it better”
From other quarters, ranging from business to gay-rights leaders, the message is the same: Braziel is responsive to their needs.
Listening to the community is the key to his job, says Braziel, who has co-authored a book on community policing.
“I like changing things,” he said. “I like looking at things and saying, ‘We can do it better.’ “
In particular, Braziel said, he likes improvising when things don’t go as planned.
When rampant crime plagued a public-housing complex, he said, his department thought traditional gang-and-drug enforcement was the answer.
But at a community meeting, the top complaint was the lack of designated parking spaces, Braziel recalled. Residents wanted a shorter walk to their doors and the ability to keep a better eye on their cars, their biggest financial asset.
After a quick fix to address the problem, residents saw the police as a partner they could trust and to whom they could report criminal activity, Braziel said. Crime plummeted, he said.
Braziel has also been responsive to racial-profiling concerns, Williams said.
He is also working to recruit women and people of color in a department where white males represent 60 percent of the officers, according to members of the citizen advisory committee.
A “change agent”
If he were hired in Seattle, he would oversee a department with about 1,345 sworn officers, a significant jump from the 711 officers he currently manages. He also would inherit a police command staff in Seattle that has controlled the department for years.
Topaz, the field training officer, said Braziel would be a “change agent.”
But, Topaz emphasized, Braziel would not impose his views and instead would look to community groups to see what needs to change.
Braziel said that in dealing with Seattle’s command staff, he would act “gingerly to begin with but assertively.”
There is talent to be tapped; those who get on the train will move forward with him, while those who don’t will be left at the station, he said.
“Seattle’s police department is going to the next level,” Braziel said of his plans if he is selected to lead the department. “It’s going to be different.”
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or seattletimes.com“>email@example.com