Meet Seattle's next police chief



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Posted on May 15, 2014 at 10:40 PM

Just days ahead of Mayor Ed Murray's expected announcement of his pick to run Seattle's troubled police department, a report was released Wednesday showing that officers are holding back in their enforcement of low-level crimes in the city.

Murray said he was “deeply concerned” by the report's findings, which show a steep decline in a number of policing measures, from the number of proactive officer responses ("On views") to the number of jail bookings and misdemeanor crime citations.

The findings raise an important question: Are the reforms imposed on SPD to curtail excessive force and racial profiling proving to be a disincentive to active crime fighting?

There are three finalists in the running to become the Seattle’s next top cop.  KING 5 spoke with each of them about their vision for SPD and the challenges of fighting crime in a department where tough rules are in place to curtail overzealous policing.

Robert Lehner, the chief of police in Elk Grove, California, a suburb of Sacramento, said leadership is the key to managing the force in a time of reform. Elk Grove is a department of just 130 officers, but Lehner has experience in bigger departments. He spent 25 years in the Tucson police department rising through the ranks to a senior assistant chief. He also ran the Eugene, Oregon, Police Department from 2004-2008.

"I think it's really important to give the good officers in the organization the support they need," Lehner. "I suspect there are very committed officers in that organization; it's been a very difficult period of time for them."

Lehner said he doesn’t think the Seattle Police Department is broken: “Its basic processes I’m sure are fine. The crime rate -- I understand there’s been a little blip in violent crime recently -- but the crime rate is not all that bad, which tells me that they’re [SPD] able to do what they need to do. However, it’s pretty obvious that the systems and the management are broken, otherwise Seattle PD would not be in the place it is right now."

Frank Milstead, the chief of police in Mesa, Arizona (a large suburb of Phoenix), was more concerned about the level of crime in the downtown core. He said he spent several days in Seattle when he flew into town for his interview and was surprised by what he saw on the streets.

"When I'm in Seattle, walking downtown, I see hand-to-hand drug sales; I see people on the corners selling drugs, which are usually driven by gang activity," he said. “And in any community I think drugs drive crime and I think those things have to be addressed sooner than later or crime will take a foothold in the city and it will take a long time to get that back."

Milstead said he would use computer statistics and predictive analytics to send officers on daily missions into the crime-ridden areas.

Only one candidate has led a police department bigger than Seattle’s -- Kathleen O’Toole, who was commissioner of the Boston Police Department from 2004 to 2006. O’Toole also has the greatest breadth of experience reforming police departments: She served on an eight-member commission that developed a new framework for policing in Northern Ireland and headed an organization that helped overhaul the national police force of the Republic of Ireland following a major corruption scandal there.

O’Toole said she is currently serving as a monitor for the Department of Justice agreement with the town of East Haven, Connecticut, where several police officers were arrested and some went to prison for committing crimes.

“The bigger the challenge the better. I worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland, and that was a pretty contentious place,” O’Toole said. "I think that Seattle is a diamond in the rough right now. With the right leadership and team in place, we can get beyond the current crisis and focus on the future."

Lehner, for his part, said he could understand why the heavy scrutiny of SPD could distract officers.

"We ran into it a little bit in Tucson, we certainly ran into it in Eugene. When there's a lot of focus on the department, especially when that focus is misconduct, that gets confused sometimes by the officers, meaning ‘I can’t do anything.’ That’s not the case.  What we want to do is make sure the work they do, they do correctly. And as soon as that happens and you realize that when you do the work correctly, you’re going to be backed up, that addresses the de-policing issue," he said.

Milstead said any pulling back by SPD officers must be addressed by the department's top officials. If officers are "afraid of the outcome" of doing their job, he said they'll come to believe that "it's easier not to get involved."

"That's something that has to be restored from the top of the organization so officers believe when you do things for the right reason, they will be supported by management," Milstead said.

O’Toole said she believes it is “really important to give the good officers in the organization the support they need." She added: "I suspect there are incredibly talented and committed officers in that organization. It’s been a very difficult time for them.  I think they’ll be very receptive to new leadership. And I think everybody that I’ve spoken to there, whether it’s internal in the police organization or externally, really wants to see this work.”

Reform timeline

Lehner estimated that bringing SPD fully into compliance with the Justice Department could take up to five or six years, though the other candidates -- Milstead and O’Toole -- said that goal could be met sooner.

"We should put a great deal of urgency in the process, and it's clear to me the mayor is considering this his top priority for the police department," O'Toole said. "And I would say in two to three years we should be able to accomplish a lot."

Milstead, meanwhile, noted the political timeline that plays into the reform agenda. "My commitment to the mayor was, I knew he had about three-and-a-half years left in his term," he said. "My plan would be that the DOJ would hand the keys back to the department before the end of his first term."

In their own words

"I'm definitely a change driver, not a maintenance manager. The bigger the challenge the better," O'Toole said of herself.

"I'm not interested in a retirement job. I want a challenge for my last chief's job, Seattle's a great city, has issues and challenges," Lehner said.

"I am a hands-on police chief. I am consultative in nature. One of the gifts I think I have is the ability to bring disparate groups together and galvanize populations for common goal and mission," Milstead said.

Leadership of the Seattle Police Department has been a major issue in city politics in recent years. The department is implementing new policies in response to a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found problems with how SPD officers used force and treated minorities.

After the DOJ issued its findings in December 2011, the city entered into an agreement with the Justice Department that called for an independent monitor and court oversight of the city’s police department, as well as the creation of a Community Police Commission that advises SPD on use of force issues and other policing practices.

Seattle's last full-time chief, John Diaz, resigned in April 2013, just as police reform was becoming a top issue in last year's mayoral campaign. When Murray took office in January, he replaced interim chief John Pugel with Harry Bailey, a retired SPD Asst. Chief who was charged with leading the department until Murray and the council select a permanent replacement.

Murray will announce his choice on Monday, after which the council will need to confirm his decision.