Excellence through honest self-reflection

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A few weeks ago I wore my Seattle Police Department sweatshirt at the City Hall Open House.  I bought it last fall on a sunny day at the SW Precinct community picnic. The precinct parking lot and sidestreet were packed with neighbors and officers who work together day in and day out to make life better in Admiral, Alki, Morgan Junction, High Point, Delridge, Pigeon Point…. SWAT officers maneuvered the bomb robot to hand out stickers to awestruck kids. Retired cops cooked up hot dogs. These picnics happen at the end of summer in each of the precincts and they are great celebrations of partnership and a chance for people to say thank you to each other.

When I wore the sweatshirt in January I had more than one person say to me, a little grimly, “Wow. Bold move with the sweatshirt.”

Friday night I did a ride-along in Southwest Seattle. Before heading out for a couple of hours with the great and under-stated Ofcr. Heric, I had a few minutes of tense conversation with a lieutenant who said he feels “kicked in the face” by the letter Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw and I sent Friday to Mayor Mike McGinn, SPD Chief John Diaz, Seattle Police Management Association head Eric Sano and Seattle Police Officers Guild head Rich O’Neill. The letter details a host of changes we’d like to see in the realm of oversight, officer hiring and training. We said in the letter that recent events have caused erosion in public trust and that steps are required to rebuild trust and construct it anew where it has been missing for too long. The events slime all officers with a sticky sheen of doubt in the eyes of too many, despite the facts of everyday every day — every minute of every day — service and sacrifice demonstrated by Seattle police officers.

We have a disconnect at this point in time between those who feel like there’s too much heat on the police department right now and those who feel like there’s not enough. Officers like the lieutenant who had a few things to tell me Saturday night feel like we’re tearing the department up over a few isolated incidents of wrong doing (incidents which he strongly said “embarrass us all”). SPD officers have literally hundreds of thousands of contacts with us over the course of a year.

Unless the incident is a headline grabber, and few are, the stories of those contacts are usually held just by the officer and the people who were victims, survivors or aggressors.

Advocates from communities of color and more than a few people I run into around town say they’re appalled by what they see on the TV news, the grainy video from patrol car dash cams and bystander cellphones.  Many of us know particular officers.  We know by name and appreciate the officers who visit our crime prevention councils, business groups and community clubs. We don’t recognize those officers and their actions. We realize our city has plenty of bad actors, but we still are repelled by the seeming abuses of power. The rash of incidents in the press causes wonder about department culture and self-awareness.  There’s enough wonder that we’ve attracted the notice of Department of Justice investigators.

Two seeming juxtapositions live simultaneously in many of us at this time: appreciation for service and sacrifice by the officers we know and revulsion at the sight of violent abuse of power by others, and conviction that the department is both excellent and marred by transgressions.

I think that’s what’s difficult for both sides to understand.

Officers hear support, thankfully, from people everyday who appreciate their intervention, but those same people may also hold concern about the department itself, about the internal procedures, customs and expectations.

Getting to a better place, where excellence in individual experiences matches up with excellence in overall department reputation, requires us to acknowledge these mismatches. Denying it does nothing but widen the gulf.