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The Long Road to Effective Management of Our Police Department

SPD badgeWhen Kathy O’Toole assumed command of the Seattle Police Department in June, 2014, she inherited a police department rife with staggering management challenges. For years, ineffective management had led to inconsistent practices, a lack of accountability, very poor tracking of resource deployments, out-of-date technology systems in need of dramatic overhaul, and a stagnant management culture highly resistant to change.

To put it bluntly, our police department was a mess, redeemed only in part by the individual efforts of officers and civilian employees who continued to do their jobs as best they could. Chief O’Toole has taken steps to build a stronger, more effective management environment, but it’s going to take a long time to right this ship.

The City Council recently received a report commissioned by Chief O’Toole to determine proper police staffing and deployment levels. Chief O’Toole delivered the study to the Council with this cover letter.

At a very high level, the study concludes we should hire an additional 61 to 93 officers above the Mayor’s 2014 commitment to hire 100 net new officers, which aligns with the Mayor’s more recent announcement of an additional net 100 officers by 2019. The report provides good context and helpful comparisons to other cities that will lay the groundwork for specific actions by SPD leadership.

The report also raises some important policy questions we must answer as a city:

  • What is an appropriate target for service levels? Is the seven minute response goal for Priority One incidents the right standard?
  • What percentage of police officer time should be proactive crime prevention versus responding to 911 calls?
  • What positions within SPD might be better performed by highly specialized and trained civilians rather than sworn police officers? I strongly favor diversification where skilled civilians are used to augment the work of officers, including forensics, information technology, crime analysis, and strategic planning and policy development.

Chief O’Toole has moved to tackle other pressing management issues. She asked the City Auditor to examine the use of police overtime pay. That report will be released soon and it once again will highlight long-term mismanagement, including poor record keeping, lack of internal controls and protocols, failure to collect money owed to the city for police services, and other systems failures. Another audit of how police manage special events, such as major sporting events, is underway.

At any given moment, all this can be discouraging. But it is important to keep in mind that years of systemic failures won’t be corrected overnight. Reform is a long road, but extremely worthwhile. Worthwhile for those officers and civilian employees at SPD who do the right thing every day and want to be proud of their department. Worthwhile for the people of Seattle who deserve efficient and effective police services. Worthwhile for all of us who hold as core beliefs and values that every person has dignity and value, is to be treated fairly and professionally, and that every neighborhood should be safe.

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