Once again, city's finest are walking tall

The Tacoma Police Department picks itself back up after the Brame scandal threatened to bring it down

April 26, 2004 

One night last month, the Tacoma Police Department rediscovered its pride.

Police commanders gleamed in full uniform. Detectives and patrol officers donned coats and ties. Families dressed up. They packed the Tacoma Public Utilities auditorium for the police department's annual awards ceremony.

Interim Police Chief Don Ramsdell greeted officers with warm handshakes as they came to the stage to be recognized for hard work during a trying year.

That night, they weren't talking about David Brame.

"People are starting to feel better about the department," Ramsdell says, noting the ceremony's turnout was one of the largest in years.

Ramsdell is the new face of the Tacoma Police Department, the leader charged with repairing the damage that has haunted the force and tainted the city since April 26, 2003, when Brame, its police chief, fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and himself.

Brame's split second of violence shook the community's trust in its police force, scarred an agency he'd led for 15 months and exposed its employees to withering scrutiny.

For months after the shootings, revelations about Brame's tainted past, his crumbling marriage and his controlling ways repeatedly jolted the department, exposing wounds that never seemed to heal.

After a six-month investigation, State Attorney General Christine Gregoire labeled the department's culture corrupt under Brame and the department's upper ranks. The review cited a loyalty-first command structure, promotions based on political favoritism and indifference to accountability.

Department employees still suffer from the hangover of the scandal, fear the results of a Washington State Patrol administrative investigation and privately fret over Brame's legacy - commanders promoted under his regime and the remnants of a deeply divided department.

In addition, the lawsuit filed by Crystal Brame's family against the city and others is pending. Also lingering is a proposal for civilian oversight of the police department.

Some in the department say morale remains low and changes are needed in the midlevel command structure. Plus, the department faces staffing shortages and a looming budget crisis.

Despite all that, since his promotion May 1, Ramsdell has pushed to re-energize the department and make it more open.

The new chief and his executive staff say they are determined to refocus the 400-member department on its mission - policing the streets of Tacoma and serving its residents.

"People want to succeed and want the department to succeed," Ramsdell says. "Everybody has a stake in it."

Officers and city leaders say Ramsdell's leadership has improved the work climate and his ideas have begun to take hold.

"He's exhibited a real positive approach and he communicates," says Eric Kothstein, a department liaison to the city's North End, West Side and central-area residents. "The community deserves a good police department and it starts at the top, and I think we got that."

Observers say Ramsdell and his three assistant chiefs, two of whom he promoted after the shootings, have fostered a more professional environment. Many who languished under Brame have flourished.

Department leaders have tackled many of the problems that they say plagued the department under Brame - including hiring without in-depth checks, cronyism and inconsistent dealings with domestic violence allegations.

"They have turned in the right direction, but it will take some time," says Jim Walton, who became city manager after Ray Corpuz was forced out amid the Brame scandal.

City Councilman Rick Talbert credits the department with facing its problems.

"Management did a good job of taking criticism and turning it around as a positive," he says.

Most changes reflect shifts in internal culture, invisible to the public. Community members continue to support the rank-and-file officers and say their interactions with police have changed little.

Priscilla Lisicich, head of the crime prevention program Safe Streets, has seen more willingness by the department to work with the community.

"He's empowered his troops to do the right thing," she said.

Officers and commanders try not to think about the future's uncertainties, including how long Ramsdell will remain chief.

In the weeks after the shootings and again after Gregoire's stinging report, city residents called for an outsider to run the department.

The day Gregoire's report was released, Mayor Bill Baarsma said Walton "should seriously think about" removing Ramsdell because of the depth of problems in the department.

Last year, Walton searched for an outside chief but his only finalist dropped out. Now, the city manager says, that might have been for the best.

"Things work in mysterious ways," Walton says. "The person you need for the hour is right under your nose and you keep looking afar for the person to save the day. Don was the person who was available and saved the day."

Walton maintains Ramsdell will be the chief as long as he remains city manager, likely through March 2005.

"He's accomplished everything I wanted and more," Walton says.

Baarsma now echoes Walton's confidence.

"He is as honest as anyone I know," the mayor says. "He is doing a first-rate job of establishing stability."

Ramsdell says he has no idea how long he'll hold the position.

"I am a day-to-day guy right now," he says. "I knew coming into this that it was an interim position."

Many in the department shy away from talking about Ramsdell not being chief.

"A lot of us would prefer not to think about him leaving," Capt. Tom Strickland says. "I don't think anybody wants to think about it."

A new approach

On a table behind Ramsdell's tidy desk on the third floor of the County-City Building, near the Ichiro Suzuki bobblehead doll, stands a plaque.

"It can be done," the rectangular sign reads.

From the beginning, Ramsdell, a Tacoma-area native who joined the department in 1985, focused on healing.

He pushed open communication, teamwork and a policing style that brings the department and community members together to fight crime.

Despite the temporary tag to his promotion, he doesn't want to be a place-holder.

"I am going to be here and do the best that I can for the city and the department," he says, sitting at the conference table in his office. Framed copies of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and several department awards hang nearby. "For us to be successful, we have to be healthy inside."

Ramsdell took over the police department five days after the shootings. Corpuz initially promoted assistant chief Catherine Woodard to acting chief but then placed her on paid administrative leave while the State Patrol investigated her potential criminal involvement in Brame's divorce.

Ramsdell was a well-liked assistant chief who led the Operations Bureau, the department's largest with 260 employees responsible for patrolling the city.

Though an assistant chief for less than nine months, he was the veteran administrator among the three remaining assistant chiefs.

"Don Ramsdell has overcome those who might have said he was too young or moved up too quickly," City Councilman Mike Lonergan says. "He's proved to be the man of the hour and helped the officers keep their heads up."

With Ramsdell, the department acquired a chief with a vastly different leadership style than Brame. Where the former chief's reputation was flashy and manipulative, the current top cop is low-key and collaborative.

"What he's lacked for experience at that level, he's compensated by being careful to listen," says Capt. Mark Langford, president of Local 26, the union representing captains and lieutenants. "He reflects more of a department focus instead of building an administration around himself and his personality."

Ramsdell carries an air of calm confidence. Unlike Brame, he doesn't sit at the head of the table during meetings with his top commanders. An unpolished public speaker, he often attends meetings alone, again, unlike Brame, who brought an entourage.

Observers say when Ramsdell speaks, he does so from the heart.

"His leadership style is not based on charisma," Baarsma says. "It is based on quiet dedication to task."

Those who deal with him regularly say he looks for advice and encourages opinions that differ from his own.

"Ramsdell and (assistant chief Jim) Howatson have gone out of their way to make the everyday officer and command staff part of the solution," says Lt. Joe Kirby, a long-standing critic of past chiefs. "They are creating an environment where people think they can participate and their input is valued and beneficial."

The chief makes a point to send e-mails or handwritten notes to commanders and patrol officers for doing good work.

"The key is the people, and treating the people with respect," he says. "It is the little things in life that make a difference."

The gestures have been appreciated.

"As an employee, I am going to work harder for that person," says community liaison officer Greg Hopkins. "That goes miles."

Ramsdell also has been praised for being evenhanded in his choices for promotions and assignments. So far he's elevated two assistant chiefs, three captains, four lieutenants, eight sergeants and seven detectives.

"Working within the department is much, much better than it was a year ago. Chief Ramsdell is doing a fine job. I don't fear knives in the dark," says Capt. Charles Meinema, one of several veteran commanders critical of Brame's leadership style. "Alas, working for the city is no bed of roses."

The chief chooses people based on their merits, not on loyalties, several department members say. He looks for who's best for the department, regardless of whether they were friends of Brame or had fallen out of the former chief's favor.

Strickland, the captain, was one of those. He didn't get along with Brame and had been overlooked for promotion to captain. Ramsdell gave him the job in February.

"Just making it was good," says Strickland, who's been with the department since 1979. "I was about ready to leave."

Overall, the Ramsdell style has pulled together a department in which division once thrived and infighting flourished.

"It's not fashionable to be part of a faction anymore," says Kirby, the lieutenant, who sued the city in 1999 for employment discrimination. "What is fashionable is a common understanding that we can better reach our goals if we pull together."

Back to work

Brame's death distracted but didn't paralyze the department.

Commanders mounted an aggressive recruiting campaign to fill patrol officer vacancies. Over the past year, the department has hired 47 officers. So far, 32 are on patrol and another 10 started in the police academy this month.

Commanders tick off a list of accomplishments in the past year, from the crime rate being down 9.2 percent to a new $258,000 police boat to a new contract with the department's largest union after three years of negotiations.

The highest-profile task was rewriting the policy on how to handle domestic violence situations when an officer is involved.

Nine months in the making, the 14-page policy was crafted with the help of local residents, domestic violence advocates, lawyers and politicians. It addressed failures exposed by Brame's bitter divorce and how he entangled several subordinates in it.

So far, three officers have been placed on paid administrative leave under the new policy.

Its first serious test came in March, when officer Marco Rahn was arrested in University Place on suspicion of domestic violence assault, a misdemeanor. The Pierce County Sheriff's Department's domestic violence unit handled the case.

The biggest problem, said sheriff's detective Sgt. Jim Kelly, who supervises the unit, was that the police department launched its Internal Affairs investigation of Rahn at the same time sheriff's deputies were collecting information. The alleged victim wasn't comfortable talking to the Tacoma investigators, Kelly says.

Under the new policy, the department's Internal Affairs investigation should begin as soon as possible after any allegations.

Strickland, who wrote the new policy, said he will work with investigators to ensure they avoid making victims uncomfortable.

The department also has worked on its hiring process.

"We'd done a real unsuccessful job in backgrounds," assistant chief Howatson says.

The hiring unit that reviews those who want to become Tacoma police officers has expanded from one background investigator to seven.

In the past, an investigator spent a couple hours on each candidate. Now, it's 60 to 80 hours, including contacting previous employers, visiting the candidate's home, running credit checks and looking for signs of violence.

"We are turning down a lot of people who would have been hired in the past because we are scrutinizing them more," Ramsdell says.

The chief also has reconvened a committee to examine a 2001 independent audit of the department's practices and policies. Another group is looking at annual performance evaluations, which the department lacks.

Ramsdell also plans to bring in a consultant to help rewrite the department's mission and values statement.

"In order for us to change our culture," he says, "we need to step back and see why we are here."

Brame's ghost and the future

Along one wall of the conference room in the chief's office, a series of frames hold the portraits of the department's past chiefs. The last one honored is James Hairston, who ran the department from Dec. 1, 1998, to Jan. 13, 2002.

Brame's doesn't appear and might never.

Also missing from the department is Woodard, who was allowed to retire on disability in November. Others, most visibly the department's longtime spokesman Jim Mattheis, have moved on in the wake of the Brame uproar.

William Meeks, a confidant of Brame's and key figure in the scandal, voluntarily demoted himself from assistant chief to captain and took an eight-month leave after the shootings. He returned to work last week.

The dead chief's ghost haunts Lt. Bob Sheehan, one of the department's command staff members interviewed by State Patrol investigators.

"Toughest year of my career," he says. "A tough year for me personally, as well as the department."

The past and future merge in Sheehan, a toothpick-chewing 23-year veteran and father of two who works in a dusty office at the site of the department's new headquarters on South Pine Street.

He is the facilities manager for the project. The headquarters is to open in the summer of 2005. A neighboring warehouse will house department and city vehicles, along with police divisions.

The new buildings represent a decade of Sheehan's life - a long campaign to replace aging facilities, finally endorsed by voters in February 2002.

Those were heady days - the early weeks of Brame's administration, when the new chief, backed by Sheehan and many other department leaders, enjoyed wide popularity.

Much later, he saw Brame collapse. On April 25, 2003, the day before the shootings, Sheehan called Corpuz to complain about the chief's behavior and that of Woodard.

He knows some in the department still question his ties to Brame and point to the inquiry by the State Patrol. Sheehan tries to view it philosophically.

"There's nothing I can do to change perceptions," he says. "I just have to move forward. The thing that's always driven me is my loyalty to the Tacoma Police Department.

"Brame was just a piece of that puzzle. That piece didn't work out."

Staff writer Lisa Kremer contributed to this report.
Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268
stacey.mulick@mail.tribnet.com
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@mail.tribnet.com



THE SERIES

SUNDAY: Many who knew of David Brame's troubles so far escape punishment. And we compare the Brame scandal to others in Tacoma's past. www.tribnet.com

TODAY: Tacoma Police Department, still with an interim chief, rediscovers its pride.

TUESDAY: Shootings prompt awareness and reform to fight domestic violence.

WEDNESDAY: Gig Harbor moves on from the tragedy. And Crystal's loved ones carry her memory and a desire for reform.

ON THE NET: www.tribnet.com

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service