A woman was being abused by her employer, and her supervisor was using the woman’s immigration status as a way to discourage her from reporting the mistreatment. She thought she had nowhere to go.

At a town hall held by Bellevue police, she heard a police officer reassure the crowd, in Spanish, that officers would never ask a victim, witness or suspect for their immigration status. Because of the meeting, she began to trust the police, according to Bellevue police Chief Steve Mylett, and eventually reported the abuse.

That encounter was one Mylett considers a success during his time leading the suburban police department, and he says, showed how sometimes an increase in reported crimes can be considered a positive — with more people feeling safe to go to police.

It’s a philosophy he says he’ll take to his new post, as chief of the Akron, Ohio, police department. Mylett, 56, announced last week he will be leaving Bellevue after six years as head of a police force that community leaders say he transformed from a troubled department to one that’s more diverse and engaged with the community it serves. He’ll join the Akron department in early August.

The main reason he gives for leaving: A place like Akron is more affordable and has an easier path to homeownership for his children, and a new city presents different challenges.

“I was looking for a place where my wife and I could plant roots, and a place where my children could settle as well,” Mylett said. “Akron is a very welcoming community, it’s a professional organization, and they are doing a lot of positive things.”

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Changes in Bellevue

Mylett arrived in Bellevue amid a rocky era of officer misconduct and lack of transparency. Within his first year, he restored the bike patrol, reorganized the department into geographic sectors and met individually with department employees. He formed African American, Muslim, Latino, LGBTQI, interfaith, Asian-Pacific Island and South Asian advisory councils for community representatives to meet with police.

City Manager Brad Miyake said he was amazed how often Mylett could point out an officer as they walked together, tell Miyake their name and details about their life. Mylett was among Miyake’s first hires as city manager.

“He was absolutely the right person that I brought on board to lead the police department,” Miyake said. “He’s done such great work here. He’s brought up the department to a different level.”

The advisory councils and community engagement were especially helpful, Mylett said, during 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold first in the region and then across the U.S., and during a national reckoning over police brutality following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.

In April 2020, Mylett hosted a virtual town hall, which was translated into Mandarin by Bellevue police Detective Zhong Zhu, addressing racism stemming from the pandemic against Bellevue’s Asian community.

Mylett, who is white, said over the past year he was “definitely educated and enlightened” on how policing needs to continue to evolve in Bellevue, where half the residents are people of color, though just 3% are Black. Following Floyd’s death, the Bellevue City Council signed a pledge to examine the police department’s use-of-force policies, and Mylett banned officers from using neck restraints except when deadly force is called for.

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Bellevue City Councilmember Jeremy Barksdale and Mylett used to meet for coffee periodically and share their perspectives on policing. Mylett talked about how law enforcement was perceived, while Barksdale would tell Mylett about his lived experience as a Black man.

One thing Mylett would try to emphasize, Barksdale said, was that he wanted his department to be seen based on how they show up in the community, versus policing in general.

“I shared with him that that’s tough sometimes to draw that line, given how, growing up and seeing how police often stick together across the profession, rather than department by department,” Barksdale said. “It was an ongoing conversation.”

On May 31, 2020, the city declared a civil emergency and imposed a curfew for downtown in response to protests that turned violent after groups broke into high-end malls and began stealing merchandise. Gov. Jay Inslee activated the National Guard in response to a request from Mayor Lynne Robinson. The city, Mylett said, was overwhelmed, even as the department called all its officers, as well as backup officers from other cities.

In April 2021, the Office of Independent Review Group issued its final report related to the city’s use-of-force policies, with 47 recommendations. Those recommendations range from technical aspects, such as the number of times a Taser should be deployed, according to the report, to broader concerns about responses to mental-health crises and transparency surrounding use-of-force data.

“I have appreciated his partnership with the council, and his ability to be open to the review of force we asked for and to be able to sit down with us at the table and discuss the issues,” Robinson said. “Just to have that rapport and trust with our chief of police has been really valuable.”

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Mylett’s biggest regret from his Bellevue tenure is that Sky Elijah Metalwala, who was 2 years old when he disappeared in Bellevue in 2011, hasn’t been found. Mylett leaves frustrated, he said, at the unsolved case. His mother initially told investigators she had left the boy in a car while she walked to a gas station after running out of gas.

“As I leave my position here as chief of police of Bellevue, I make one more plea to her, to please come forward to speak with our detectives,” Mylett said, “so we can bring closure to this terrible situation involving Sky.”

In 2018, Mylett spent two months on administrative leave before being cleared of any wrongdoing after he was accused of sexual assault by a woman investigators found likely had never met Mylett. An investigation by the Bothell Police Department found that the accuser had created fake email exchanges and had a history of making false reports. Mylett said the experience didn’t have any impact on him wanting to leave Bellevue.

“It was a difficult period for my family and I, but our faith in God helped us weather the storm,” he said. “I give great credit to the Bothell Police Department for getting to the truth.”

Miyake says he’ll use Mylett as a model as he begins his nationwide search for a successor. The city has not announced who will serve as interim chief.

Barksdale, meanwhile, said he would like to see a focus on internal changes in policing and not relying just on the chief’s job performance.

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“We still need to think of the systemic change, independent of who is leading the department,” he said.

New challenges in Akron

Mylett will lead a department of 447 officers, more than double the number of Bellevue police officers he oversees. His base salary will be $144,788, according to the Akron Police Department, with an additional $29,722 annual bonus. His Bellevue base salary of $199,660 is higher, but the Akron cost of living is much lower — housing costs 62% less than in the Seattle area, groceries are 20% less, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research’s cost of living index.

The challenges facing Akron, a city of 198,000 people 40 miles south of Cleveland, are in stark contrast to Bellevue. Bellevue’s median household income of $120,000 is nearly three times that of Akron’s, and 7% of the population live under the poverty line, compared with 24% of Akron residents, according to the U.S. Census.

Mylett will take the helm at a time when Akron is on track to surpass the record 50 homicides in 2020, according to reporting from the Akron Beacon Journal. In 2020, Bellevue recorded seven homicides.

Mylett says his experience working over 32 years in three different communities — Corpus Christi and Southlake, Texas, then Bellevue — prepared him for the new city.

Corpus Christi was diverse and primarily middle class, and his experiences there led him to develop skills in operating a department and managing crises. In Southlake, an affluent suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, he learned how to work under the leadership of a city manager. Bellevue, where nearly 40% of its residents were born in another country, showed him how to serve an international community.

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“If you combine all those experiences in a 32-year career, I think it has positioned me well to enter into Akron to serve,” he said.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan called Mylett, who was recruited through a national search and chosen from four finalists, the right fit as a “successful leader of police personnel.”

“Steve is a demonstrated man of integrity, a successful leader of police personnel, and an engaged member of the communities he serves,” Horrigan said in a news release. “Steve understands the challenges that Akron faces to reduce violent crime and increase community trust.”