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Tuesday, December 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A failure of police leadership

Special to The Times

A SEATTLE police officer is fired. Allegations against him include use of drugs, illicit distribution of prescription drugs, aiding the commission of a residential burglary, failure to take police action, and misuse of city equipment and job time.

Two sergeants — the most important first-line supervisors in the police department — are also disciplined; one for exposing a confidential informant, the other for joking that an officer was a "rat" and possibly cooperating with investigators. The evidence suggests these sergeants were cleverly discouraging cooperation with internal investigators.

The facts of these cases detail a pattern of misconduct that would seem unbelievable if not for official confirmation.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has imposed discipline, but it fell far short of what his own internal investigators had recommended. Those investigators are fuming. Their jobs are already some of the most difficult and stressful in police work; being undercut by their leader is not only demoralizing, it sends the wrong message throughout the ranks.

The role of police chief is critically important in this environment. It is this leader who, almost single-handedly, establishes standards and expectations for the police force on which the officers and public alike can depend.

The current cases do not involve the typical, single-incident allegations of misconduct faced frequently by many good police officers — things like excessive force, rudeness toward civilians, unjustified search and seizure. Such complaints, often spurious, and often the result of split-second decisions in the heat of confrontation, go with the job.

No, these recent cases are very different. The evidence reveals a continuing pattern of misconduct over many years, including lengthy association with known criminals, repeated dereliction of duty, repeated failure to properly supervise, and repeated blind eyes turned by other officers who should have acted courageously to stop it.

Kerlikowske had the opportunity to send a powerful message. Instead, he negotiated. His reward? One of the sergeants he disciplined has boasted that he was exonerated.

Kerlikowske needed to take clear, decisive and sweeping action by imposing the severest discipline recommended by his internal-affairs commanders. Rather than negotiate discipline as he did, he should have sent an unequivocal message both to his employees and the community that such behavior would never be allowed.

Why is this so important?

First, weak police leadership allowed rampant misconduct decades ago in the police department. That tolerance bred distrust in the community and ruined the careers of many police officers by creating two camps: officers who had bought into the corruption, and those labeled "straight and narrow." The latter were passed over for promotions, transferred to undesirable units and generally shunned. I'm aware there are hints of similar winnowing efforts in the current cases.

Second, it's important for effective policing. The pertinent phrase "willful compliance" describes the bedrock assumption in police work that the overwhelming majority of citizens will voluntarily comply with the law and respect police authority. Misconduct of the type involved in these cases works like water on rock, wearing away the foundation of trust until the rock — the police force — can no longer be seen as reliable.

Third, it's important for the leadership and the morale of the men and women on the street. These officers know exactly what happened in these cases; they saw the bobbing and weaving of those who advocated on behalf of and even excused the behavior of the accused. They saw the disdain for ethics and accountability. They get it. And they were waiting for their leader to strike down any hint of tolerance of such behavior.

These are the women and men who answer your 911 call. They are the ones nabbing the street criminals who make life miserable for all of us. They are the ones persuading our sons and daughters to say no to gangs, drugs and the temptations of petty crime. They are the "first responders" who are always there in an emergency.

It is these women and men I think of first when I learn the facts of these misconduct cases; it is their disappointed, embarrassed groans I hear. These are the professionals who needed their leader to stand tall and reject the ration-alizations and the most recent or loudest justifications. These are the people who needed Kerlikowske to step up and lead, to recognize the difference between honest mistakes and the habitual misconduct we see in these cases that demands swift and uncompromising discipline.

Timothy Burgess was a Seattle police detective in the 1970s when the police department and city government emerged from decades of corruption. He also served 12 years on the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, five years as chairman. He can be reached at tim.burgess@thedomaingroup.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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