Kudos to Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess for calling for a more-effective police culture.
Tim Burgess stirred the police-reform pot this week with an essay on his philosophy for change.
The issue shouldn’t rest, and Burgess, a City Council member since 2008, and a former Seattle police officer and detective, has ideas that should be part of the discussion of the way forward.
“It is time we undertook deep, fundamental reform of what the police do and how they do it,” he wrote after laying out his suggestions.
Instead of a focus on a general hunt for bad guys, he recommended concentrating on crime hot spots, in partnership with businesses and residents in those areas, and on that small percentage of people who commit a disproportionately large percentage of crime.
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He wants police to be more analytical and proactive to help change the factors that nurture crime.
And, he argued for recruiting and training that emphasize a new mindset, less military, more collaborative and preventive.
His prescriptions owe something to the community-policing movement, which has been around for decades, widespread as an idea but not so much as a practice.
He acknowledged that when we spoke Wednesday, but said he steered clear of highlighting that link because of the baggage the label carries. Like many reform movements it’s not universally popular. Not everybody likes change.
But the practices that community policing espouses are sound. Burgess’ essay is built on years of studies that show the effectiveness of policing in partnership with the community. Still, it has been difficult to put into practice, partly because big institutions are hard to change, especially, he said, one as hierarchical and authoritarian as a police department.
Burgess has some experience with that, of course. I asked what drew him to police work in the first place, and he said he wanted to be part of an earlier reform effort.
He was a radio journalist in the late 1960s and early 1970s covering Seattle City Hall and the corruption scandals that were rife among Seattle police and politicians. In May 1971, he joined the Police Department to participate in reforming it.
Burgess said he learned a lot from the experience, “including the importance of equal enforcement of the law.” He grew up in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and knew only part of the city. Through police work he was “exposed to sections of our city I had never been to and meeting people that I had no exposure to, mostly people living in poverty, and ethnic minorities. … It changed my world view.”
His essay on police reform includes a section on the long history of police and African Americans, explaining the ways police have been used to keep black people “in their place.” That history and contemporary abuses hurt the community and reduce police effectiveness. It’s one of the areas that will take commitment and work to change.
Modern policing can’t be just about the application of muscle. It has to be more thoughtful and professional than ever.
Research advances make policing based on what actually works increasingly possible. We should not accept anything less. A new police culture has to be at the core of any transformation, built from the ground up through careful recruiting and up-to-date training and led by people who embrace the new methods.
I couldn’t get Burgess to say whether he thought we need new leadership to ensure reform, but the changes he’s suggesting can’t happen without total commitment from the top in city government and in the Police Department.
It’s good he’s stirring the pot. A report from the Department of Justice last month lit the fire. Over the next few months we’ll see if Seattle’s leadership cooks up anything substantial.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.