M ayor-elect Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council recently spent $30,000 on a law-enforcement adviser who flew to town on December 9 for several important dates, including a meeting with the interim police chief, Jim Pugel. In their meeting, the adviser had a stunning message: He reportedly told Pugel he will be ineligible for the permanent position of chief, according to three sources at city hall familiar with the discussion who provided information on the condition of anonymity.
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Why? According to the sources, the adviser, Bernard Melekian, said the council wants the chief to be hired from outside the department—not from within the ranks, as the city did with its last police chief, John Diaz, who was criticized throughout his tenure for failing to rein in and discipline bad officers. Compounding the memory of Diaz's poor leadership, the entire council is up for reelection in 2015, and they must appear strong on police reform (the SPD is under a federal court order to quash a pattern of misconduct), the sources attest to Melekian saying. Appointing an outsider will show that the council is reforming the SPD.
This raises a problem: Seattle wants the best chief possible—as good as Pugel or better. But if Pugel is the best candidate available, yet we pick another candidate based solely on his or her status as an outsider, Seattle won't get the best.
Nonetheless, many political insiders are fine with this. An op-ed in the Seattle Times last week by attorney David A. Perez (a member of Murray's transition ream) and former prosecutor Maurice Classen declared that Murray should "choose an outsider." It's also widely known that Council Member Tim Burgess opposes an insider and is backing a bill that would let an outside chief import staff from other cities. Given two opportunities, Burgess refused to comment.
Their reasoning is simple. Any cop who currently works for the SPD "has been part of the problem, so they can't be part of the solution—that's the logic flow," explains Council Member Bruce Harrell, who chairs the council's public safety committee. But Harrell dismisses that argument as "too superficial."
"To automatically exclude Pugel because of his experience is, to me, shortsighted," Harrell says. "I think he needs to be evaluated in the context of other people."
A request to speak with Melekian, who will get another lucrative contract in 2014 to help lead the search for a new chief, was denied by Murray's staff. But Murray went on the record to say that he remains open-minded and Melekian doesn't make the final decision.
"I don't know if an inside or outside candidate is a preference," Murray said. "I said during the campaign that I would conduct a national search for chief and that includes Seattle."
Murray also says he may ask Pugel to step down from his role as interim chief if he wants to apply for the permanent job. That raises concerns, however, that a placeholder would be a lame-duck chief who cannot implement reform while the search is conducted in 2014.
Anyone who considers this article advocacy for Pugel misses the point. (Full disclosure: Pugel was my babysitter when I was an infant, a period before I have memories. But he was not the source of this story.) Pugel's record speaks for itself—he's been a leader on progressive policing, admitted department mistakes, and recently demoted subordinates who were obstacles to reform—and he deserves a fair evaluation. If someone better comes along, we should hire them. But the rampant advocacy to dismiss Pugel without comparing him to others in the field would be bad policy that puts political showboating ahead of picking a good chief.