As the University of Washington Police Department searches for a new leader, it faces long-standing organizational issues and dissatisfaction from employees, according to the results of an independent review of the department.
The review was launched after a group of officers submitted a letter of no confidence in now-former UW Police Chief John Vinson to the university in September, alleging that he fostered an atmosphere of “hostility, retaliation and unethical behavior.” Vinson has since left his the role as police chief to focus on his other job at the university, a decision administrators said was unrelated to the letter and review.
The review, led by Kathryn Olson, former director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, found that while many departmental issues existed before Vinson became chief in 2009, the department had bristled under his leadership in recent years.
A survey conducted as part of the review, which 90% of employees responded to, found that:
- 8% of survey respondents agreed there was a climate of trust in the department.
- 12% agreed there was good communication within the department.
- 14% agreed executive leadership made good decisions on how to allocate department resources.
The department is tasked with serving the university’s Seattle campus, including investigating crimes, traffic and parking enforcement, emergency management, victim support and crime prevention.
While the survey found that employees generally reported having good relationships with their co-workers and supervisors, they also reported a work environment that was toxic and ran off a culture of fear, according to the report. Staff expressed concern about the instability among command staff, a lack of transparency about budgetary matters and Vinson’s leadership style.
In response to the letter of no confidence from officers, Vinson said he believed the complaint was in reaction to his increased accountability measures, as well as recent contract negotiations. He said patrol supervisors had resisted the measures, which brought hostile reactions among officers and some supervisors.
Olson’s review credited Vinson with making progress on some issues, including formalizing the internal affairs process, raising salaries for commissioned officers and increasing diversity. But in interviews with 68 current and former employees, the review also identified concern with Vinson’s leadership.
“While his strengths initially helped move the UWPD organization and its mission forward, Chief Vinson has struggled on many fronts the past three or four years,” the report said. “His task-driven leadership style served him well in his early years at UWPD, but the Department has bristled against the approach more recently, rendering him less effective overall.”
According to the review, Vinson faced pushback from some employees who felt he was the second choice to an internal candidate. Employees consistently brought up a 1994 incident in which Vinson was investigated, but not charged; the UW said it had been aware of it before hiring him.
Vinson left his role as police chief at the start of the month to focus on his job as associate vice president for student life. UW administrators were briefed on the reviews’ findings before Vinson was reassigned. Despite the sequence of events, university spokesman Victor Balta said the decision was not related to the review findings and that discussion around reassigning Vinson “had been going on for some time.”
The review also identified organizational and cultural issues that an incoming chief would face. With just 81 employees, UWPD’s organization mirrors much larger agencies, resulting in a top-heavy organization and a high degree of specialization.
UW has also struggled with recruiting and retention, not unlike other police departments, although it has made progress since 2015, when it faced high turnover among command staff and had half the number of officers than usual.
The review found the department still struggles with shift coverage, and recommended it set aside overtime pay, although the department has struggled with a reduction in funding and has been under a plan to pay back the university for overspending.