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.