To be certain, police misconduct and the political storm surrounding it were never my beat, but I know enough about the subject to know that the Seattle Police Department’s handling of the issue these past few months has been more than a little bit weird.
Misconduct findings have been summarily reversed, with not much in the way of a rational explanation (and no, arguing that the appeals were handled in “a manner consistent” with a process with “serious flaws” is not a rational explanation for a troubled department under a federal consent decree). Reformers like former interim chief Jim Pugel have been disappeared, replaced by one-time Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) vice-president Harry Bailey. And while actual misbehaving street cops get their records expunged, the SPD’s most effective and accessible public information officer, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb (who irked some SPD insiders for not being sufficiently devout in his defense of the thin blue line), remains exiled to lands unknown on a trumped up ethics complaint related to the department’s wildly successful Hemp Fest Doritos giveaway.
And of course, then there was the reversal of the reversal of the discipline to the officer who threatened Dom, an astounding fuck-up on both a policy and a communications level, that left Bailey looking weak, unserious, and uninformed.
So, how to explain the apparently anti-reformist behavior at SPD during the first few months of Mayor Ed Murray’s administration? Well, one bit of rather obvious speculation that I keep hearing is that Murray cut a deal with SPOG in order to get their campaign endorsement.
Now, I have no idea if this is true. And there’s no real point in asking Murray, as he’d be absolutely crazy to say anything but an emphatic “No!” So let’s just assume that’s his answer. But regardless, at this point the truth isn’t nearly as important as perception, and fair or not, three months into his first term Murray is beginning to come off as a toady to SPOG—and while that may win him points within SPD ranks, it won’t help him build the consensus he’ll need from the broader community in order to push through the reforms he ultimately proposes.
SPD’s cultural issues are just too ingrained to be solved simply by cultivating buy-in from the rank and file. Most officers are courteous and professional, yet few are willing to break the code and turn against the bad apples who ruin the reputation for all. Thus true reform can only come from outside the ranks. So if Murray is to be an effective reformer, he’s going to need to be perceived as leading the department, rather than as acceding to the demands of SPOG.
Big Boss spews:
“Most officers are courteous and professional, yet few are willing to break the code and turn against the bad apples who ruin the reputation for all.” I believe the word you are looking for for these courteous professionals is “accomplices”.
Well said, Goldy.
@1, I share your skepticism (as well as a wary view of state authority generally), but I think that indicting every cop for the actions of the most egregious among them isn’t fair. I think that’s true of just about any profession where people wield special power that can be easily abused (doctors, lawyers, bankers, clergy, politicians, et al.). Granted there are those who may not deserve the benefit of the doubt because of patterns of bad behavior either individually or collectively (e.g., Catholic priests), but let’s not be so paranoid as to think that every cop’s out looking to harass citizens and trample their rights. (I’m not blind to the fact that there are groups, e.g. persons of color or the poor, who are far more likely to be harassed/harmed.)
All that said, SPD as an institution does have a problem; that’s been obvious for years now. When the problems are sufficiently pervasive as to warrant inquiries by the DOJ, the leadership (of SPD and the mayor) deserve the brunt of responsibility and blame. It would be nice if the police could be “self-policing,” but that’s unrealistic to expect of any of the aforementioned professions, either. (And many of those other institutions do perfectly bad jobs of holding individuals accountable within the group, and we the public don’t do a good enough job of holding them accountable from the outside.)
There will be a simple measure, very soon, of where Murray stands on SPD: who he picks as the permanent chief. If it’s another inside hire, you know the cultural rot – which permeates SPD from top to bottom, regardless of how professional or diligent individual cops try to be – won’t be seriously challenged no matter how many great-sounding policies or press releases get put out. SPD quite literally needs a new sheriff in town.
McGinn’s handing of SPD alone should disqualify him from ever holding public office again. Murray could turn out, based on the first months, to be just as bad – or far, far better. We’ll see.
I didn’t know Sgt. Whitcomb was out.
I looked at the report of the officer who handled the drunken firefighters who attacked the homeless guy. He seemed like he was very calm and professional.
Dr. Hilarius spews:
When I heard that SPOG had endorsed Murray my first thought was “he’s cut a deal with them.” All evidence since points to that being the case. If he didn’t cut a deal with them, it’s even more pathetic, carrying their water with nothing in return.
SPOG actually behaves like a wing nut fantasy of a union; utterly self-serving and in opposition to the public good. Attempts at quiet, behind-the-scenes reform will produce nothing.