There is a whole hell of a lot going on in the upper ranks of the Seattle Police Department this week. On January 8, Mayor Ed Murray announced a new interim police chief: 35-year SPD veteran Harry Bailey. Bailey, the mayor stressed, has “no interest” in the permanent chief position, while the man he replaces, Jim Pugel, has been open about seeking the job. Far from a rebuke, Pugel’s demotion to assistant chief is an opportunity for him to apply for the long-term job, and Murray has said he is certainly “welcome to apply.”
Bailey arrives with plenty of street cred aside from his decades on the force: Up until recently, he’d been working for former mayor Mike McGinn to help implement McGinn’s police reform agenda. Not only does he have a history of working on reform and the approval of two mayors who don’t tend to see eye to eye, the historically conservative and anti-reform police union has also given him their stamp of approval, saying in a press release that he’s “highly respected by the rank and file officers” they represent. Which means Bailey could make reforms that beat cops are more likely to implement. So it seems, if anyone is poised to make a good replacement for Pugel, Bailey could be it.
Murray says he wants to select a new, permanent police chief in April. But after this shakeup, that person will be the fourth police chief in just one year—not exactly the steady leadership the department needs to move forward decisively on reforms. What chance will Bailey have to make a difference in just a few months at the helm?
Here’s one idea, say sources at SPD and city hall: Because he’s not gunning for the chief job (and because he was previously serving as a mayoral advisor, not inside the force), he doesn’t have a lot of pressure on his shoulders. The kind of internal politics and career considerations that complicate the process of making heads roll where they need to? He doesn’t have those concerns. He’s here for a few months and out the door as soon as the new guy is hired.
In other words, Bailey’s been set up perfectly to come into the troubled department and clean house. But if that is the plan, it would be unfortunate to toss out everyone—and another shakeup this week is not nearly as optimistic a sign as Bailey’s announcement.
On January 13, Assistant Chief Mike Sanford, who heads up the Professional Standards Bureau, gave his notice of retirement. A report this winter by the monitor overseeing SPD’s compliance with a federal consent decree—an attempt to address a history of excessive force and biased policing, according to the US Department of Justice—warned that the senior command staff was a major source of resistance to reform. The monitor, Merrick Bobb, wrote that “a struggle wages on at the upper command level for control of policy related to the Consent Decree… If the current senior command staff remains in place and their attitudes toward the Settlement Agreement do not change, the SPD is unlikely to be able to achieve full and effective compliance with the Consent Decree.”
Within two weeks of that report leaking to the media in November 2013, two of Pugel’s assistant chiefs were demoted. Now Sanford's leaving.
But far from being a leader of resistance to reform, Sanford, according to sources with knowledge of the department, was in fact a champion of reform, guiding McGinn’s 20/20 police reform plan and working to help SPD comply with the settlement agreement. Bobb’s report even calls Sanford out by name, saying he “displayed an admirable willingness to act with a sense of urgency and an ability to adroitly manage bureaucratic issues that could otherwise routinely thwart progress.”
If he had a target on his back, it was more likely from the anti-reform crowd.
In other words, Bailey—and by extension, Mayor Murray—may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And that would be a sign that serious reform at SPD is still a long way off.