Special Reports

Transforming Tacoma police will be a long process

Police and city leaders have taken the first steps to change the Tacoma Police Department's "culturally corrupt" management, but they will have miles to go before they're done.

An upcoming internal investigation by Washington State Patrol might lead to discipline or staffing changes, including a new chief, but will barely begin to overhaul the 400-member department.

To do that, police and city officials likely will have to dig much deeper to make changes and mold a new attitude.

"I see this as the worst of times and as the best of times, side by side," said City Manager Jim Walton.

Transforming a police department's culture is a time-consuming challenge, but it can be done, say people who have been in Tacoma's place.

"It's not rocket science," said Michael Cherkasky, who oversees the federally mandated reforms of the Los Angeles Police Department. "It's process. It's time. It's endurance."

In general, a city must determine how deep the problems run, punish those responsible and put into place policies to keep the trouble from happening again, said State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas.

Serpas, who lectures nationally on police accountability, has worked with the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation to assess and improve police department performance in cities across the country.

Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans recently dealt with troubled police departments. City officials hired police chiefs from the outside to handle the cleanup work and rebuild community trust.

The chiefs reorganized their departments, made officers accountable for their work and used best practices from across the nation to revamp policies and better train officers.

Last week, a state criminal investigation launched as part of the David Brame scandal found no criminal violations by the Tacoma Police Department but harshly criticized its top managers, asserting that they took part in the creation of a "corrupt culture."

Problems began years ago but thrived under the late police chief, who fatally shot his wife, Crystal, then himself April 26, the Washington State Patrol investigation found.

Brame's dictatorial leadership fostered an atmosphere that demanded blind obedience, ignored or did not properly investigate allegations of misconduct, and promoted personnel for reasons other than job performance, investigators said.

To help overhaul the department, city leaders asked the State Patrol to follow-up its criminal investigation with a review at 34 allegations of misconduct against 32 city and police employees.

The review will determine which allegations are credible and address how deep a problem still exists.

"As part of our responsibility to the city manager, we have to help the city define when and where and if it is stopped," Serpas said. "We can help them learn whether or not it is ended.

"The most important thing is the men and women of the police department have to feel valued for what they are and not what David Brame became."

Interim Police Chief Don Ramsdell said he's already started to change the culture that developed under previous leaders.

"The culture being portrayed as 'the culture' was the culture when David Brame was here," Ramsdell said.

He has provided training to officers on community-oriented policing, evaluated hiring and promotional policies and directed commanders to rework the department's policing on handling domestic violence allegations against officers.

"It's not like we've been paralyzed," Ramsdell said. "There are some issues we need to deal with. This is an opportunity for us to grow and be better."

He's promoted several people - including two men to assistant chief positions - whom he believes carry strong values and a dedication to the law enforcement mission.

"People care about making the department a better place as opposed to thinking about themselves," Ramsdell said.

Learning lessons

Tacoma leaders can look to Los Angeles, Detroit and New Orleans for examples of what it takes to get a stumbling police department back on its feet.

Detroit and Los Angles remain under federal monitoring after U.S. Department of Justice investigations. (New Orleans' problems never reached the point where the Justice Department intervened.)

The changes were prompted by specific events that exposed problems in the police departments. Tacoma's event was the Brame homicide-suicide.

"Once an explosion occurs, it's cathartic. It heals," Serpas said. "From there on out, it can only get better."

The troubled departments lost their focus on their mission - to provide public safety - because of the entrenched problems, Serpas said.

"When that type of activity goes on, nobody is focused on crime fighting," he said. "Nobody is focused on quality-of-life issues. Nobody is focused on accountability measures."

In Los Angeles, claims that officers in the Rampart Division routinely abused and framed suspects provoked cries for change within the police department.

Nine police officers were charged - five were convicted and sentenced, three had their convictions overturned and one was acquitted.

A federal decree mandated reform within the department and laid out 140 provisions to be addressed by June 2006.

Cherkasky, president of Kroll Inc., a risk management company in New York, was appointed to monitor the changes on behalf of the government.

In addition, Los Angeles officials hired an outside chief to run the 9,000-member department as it tried to reform itself, in part, through "integrity" training.

"We are setting out moral and ethical values for police officers," Cherkasky said. "We are going to educate them in the constitutional issues they will face."

The training teaches Los Angeles officers about community-oriented policing and encourages them to use residents more in their crime-fighting efforts.

"Training is the way to communicate what you in the city want of your officers," Cherkasky said.

In New Orleans, a soaring murder rate prompted change within its police department.

In 1994, more than 400 homicides occurred in the city and a newly elected mayor brought in a police chief from outside to spark change.

Serpas, who worked in the New Orleans department at the time, said there were discipline problems, a lack of community trust in the officers and a lack of direction from top administrators.

A new team of police commanders, which included Serpas, created a Public Integrity Division to address internal corruption, established an "early warning system" to retrain problem officers, developed new hiring standards and implemented community-oriented policing.

The changes led to significant declines in homicide and other violent crimes. Citizen complaints about police misconduct also decreased, Serpas said.

"We held ourselves accountable," Serpas said. "People felt better about the city."

in Detroit, the police department came under federal scrutiny because of several officer-involved shootings of innocent citizens, a pattern of locking up witnesses without due process and a practice of jailing prisoners in filthy conditions.

An outside chief was hired to make reforms, but many officers distrusted him. He was replaced after 22 months with a woman who rose through the ranks.

Earlier this year, a federal decree demanded the department make several changes in its policies and practices.

Tacoma's next steps

The experiences of other cities and police departments can provide a wealth of best practices and lessons for Tacoma, Cherkasky said.

"There is enormous amounts to learn," he said.

In addition, a handful of organizations, including the Police Executive Research Forum, the Police Foundation and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, can provide guidance and consultants, Serpas said.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to changing police culture.

"You have to go into the police department and look at specifics," said Cherkasky, who emphasized training as one key.

"Training is communication with clarity about what your mission is," Cherkasky said.

Revamping a police culture takes years, Serpas said.

"It takes three to five years to root out the institutional issues to get back on even ground," he said.

It takes even longer cement a new culture through hires, promotions and performance evaluations.

City Manager Walton said he doesn't know exactly what needs to be done in the city and police department.

He said he'll wait for the State Patrol's internal review to plan his next steps, including whether he needs to make staffing changes or hire an outside consultant.

"We would have to be guided by the facts and information that comes from the review," Walton said.

In addition to the State Patrol investigation, he'll look at what the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs recommends after its review of how Brame was hired and promoted.

Walton is considering forming a group to address how to implement changes suggested by the two investigations. Many of its members would come from outside city government and would have expertise in human relations and organizational development.

"This is a great opportunity to change and improve and I don't want to blow it by saying we can do it" ourselves, Walton said.

"It will take time to change it. I would like to think we're headed in that direction."

Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268