About 200 representatives from 100 or so police departments have gathered at Seattle's Westin Hotel for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

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Big-city police departments across the country are facing the same issues as Seattle police when it comes to building trust in their communities and improving transparency, according to a group of chiefs in town for the annual meeting of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

About 200 representatives from 100 or so police departments have gathered at Seattle’s Westin Hotel for the three-day conference that wraps up Saturday. The 30-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based forum aims to improve policing through research and involvement in public-policy debate, said PERF executive director Chuck Wexler.

A handful of chiefs from Newark, N.J., to San Diego, Calif., along with King County Sheriff Sue Rahr and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, spoke to members of the media on Friday. Seattle Police Chief John Diaz had planned to attend the briefing but was unable to do so because he was in a budget meeting, Wexler said.

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. said his department, subject of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree over its use of force and detention of prisoners since 2003, was initially resistant to change.

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“We previously weren’t accepting of the DOJ changing our culture,” he said. But his police leadership has since embraced accountability and quality controls as a means of supporting civil rights.

The chiefs said they didn’t know details of the current DOJ review of the Seattle department’s civil-rights practices, so couldn’t comment, though they agreed the challenges faced by the Seattle department aren’t unique. Diaz said last month he welcomed the investigation into whether Seattle officers have engaged in a pattern of unnecessary force and biased policing following a series of videotaped incidents between officers and minorities.

“Unfortunately, communities disproportionately affected by crime are those” that have the most strained relationships with police, said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey of the Philadelphia department. To improve those relationships, people need to see “us as legitimate in our ability to enforce laws fairly and impartially,” he said.

To that end, there’s a growing movement now under way in policing, said Chief Garry McCarthy of the Newark Police Department.

“The fact is, we’re in the process of constructing the next iteration of police work,” he said. “Initially, police were very reactive,” responding to crimes after they’d been committed, he said.

“Then proactive policing came in, and we talked about preventing crime. The next step is preventing crime in concert and with the blessings of the community,” McCarthy said. “It’s where we’re going as a profession.”

Rahr said police agencies are good at teaching officers physical skills, but now they need to focus on officers’ interpersonal skills.

“If we’re going to make a culture change, we have to be very specific about what we’re asking people to do and the guidance we’re giving to our officers on the street,” she said.

Instead of focusing on building trust through community forums and other macro-level efforts, Rahr said the focus is shifting to the micro level by building trust through individual contacts.

“We need to build community trust one interaction at a time,” she said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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