Special Reports

Tacoma reforms after Brame, but still has work left

It’s harder to get a job now with the Tacoma Police Department.

Background checks are more stringent since Police Chief David Brame killed his wife and committed suicide 21/2 years ago.

Domestic violence victims soon will have a one-stop center where they can access a range of services.

It will be named for Brame’s late wife, Crystal Judson Brame.

But despite these accomplishments – and the recent settlement of the Judson family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the City of Tacoma – there is plenty that remains undone, everything from fixing the city’s broken human resources department to starting civilian oversight of the police department.

By most accounts, the city has scored high marks in its anti-domestic violence efforts.

And the police department has tightened hiring practices following revelations that Brame was hired as a rookie officer despite failing a psychological exam.

Before the shooting, the department had one person doing background checks, said Police Chief Don Ramsdell. Now, 10 people are trained in background check investigations, and three officers are assigned full time to do background checks and work on hiring.

But progress on other reforms has been slow, sometimes because of the need to negotiate with labor unions or the civil service board.

Settlement requires reforms

The settlement agreement between the city and the Judson family offers the possibility for more change. In addition to paying the Judson family $12 million, the agreement requires officials to continue working on a series of reforms ranging from improving the city’s ethics code to implementing civilian oversight of the police department.

The agreement merely calls on the city to “continue to make all reasonable efforts” at various reforms, though, without defining what constitutes a “reasonable effort,” or offering a hammer in the event that officials fail to live up to the agreement.

In addition, the specific reforms listed are things the city was working on before the settlement agreement. Civilian oversight of the police, for example, has been an issue for nearly two decades. Accreditation of the police department, an unfinished goal, is something the department has wanted for years.

Nevertheless, the Rev. David Alger, chairman of Associated Ministries and a critic who told the City Council last year that he wanted to see “concrete action” rather than hear “we’re making progress,” called the settlement a good deal for citizens.

It requires the city to name the planned city-county family justice center in honor of Brame’s late wife, and to set aside April 26 – the day Brame shot his wife and committed suicide in a Gig Harbor parking lot – as domestic violence awareness day, he noted.

Those actions will serve as powerful, long-lasting reminders of the scourge of domestic violence, Alger said.

“We’ve learned that anybody and everybody can make a mistake, and we have to be very careful about how we evaluate everyone in important leadership positions,” he said. “I think we’re less likely to make a mistake now around domestic violence because of what we’ve learned here.”

In the minds of some city leaders, looking for people to blame or changes to make within government is pointless. The only person to blame, they say, is David Brame.

Others contend that Brame’s hiring, rise through the ranks and promotion to chief raised questions about a number of policies and procedures within the police department and City Hall.

Not all of those questions have been answered satisfactorily, they say.

Among the critics are members of a citizens advisory group that reviewed the findings of an investigation by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Members of the group complain that City Council members gave their recommendations lip-service.

“They listened politely and nodded their head and sent us on our way and that was that,” said committee member Jon Abels.

“I think the city totally dropped the ball,” said committee member Ginny Eberhardt. “They never accepted the recommendations of the citizen panel. Ever.”

City officials disagree.

A police department response to the citizens panel recommendations says the city is working on developing policies on records management; a revised policy on administrative leave has been developed; an anonymous hot line for reporting abuse by police officers is available; the department is implementing recommendations of an earlier audit; and other reforms are under way.

But some recommendations involve state and city administrative rules, union contracts and other issues that make policy changes complex and difficult to implement, the report states.

Citizen oversight of the police department, which gained momentum because of the Brame shootings, came closer than ever to happening this year after a divided City Council voted to move ahead with the idea. But key parts are in negotiations with labor unions and has yet to take effect.

Before he retired this summer, City Manager Jim Walton proposed a number of policy changes, as well. Some have occurred, but key changes regarding disciplinary action are awaiting approval from the Civil Service Review Board and the City Council.

More work remains to be done in the city’s Human Resources Department, too.

Last year, a 179-page report blasted the department and recommended overhauling it.

Officials have worked through approximately 75 of the suggestions contained in the report and implemented about 18, said human resources director Woodrow Jones Jr.

Analysts from the department are now working directly with other departments, and they’re trying to respond more quickly to individual employees who raise concerns, Jones said.

Performance reviews – for human resources and all departments – haven’t been implemented, but work is continuing, Jones said.

There are signs that the public anger in the aftermath of the Brame shootings has dissipated. Backers of changing the city manager form of government used the events as evidence of the need for a strong elected mayor to run the city. Proponents gathered more than 12,000 signatures in support, but legal technicalities kept it off the ballot. While activists vow to bring the issue back, popular support has dwindled.

Culture changes at City Hall

Council members say the city is better off now than it was before the Brame shootings, even if they don’t always agree on the specifics.

Not only has the city made strides regarding domestic violence, but officials also have moved away from the culture of deal-making that thrived under City Manager Ray Corpuz and was exposed in the aftermath of the Brame shootings and the subsequent firing of Corpuz.

Councilman Mike Lonergan said he ran for office because he regarded City Hall has a place where a limited number of people had access to Corpuz, the city’s powerful manager.

“I believe we have a better city now,” Lonergan said. “We have an actual city manager as opposed to, I don’t know what you call it, a deal-maker, a lobbyist.

“Some are not happy about that,” he added.

It’s not fair to credit the Brame shootings entirely for the changes, Lonergan said.

New council members, including himself and Mayor Bill Baarsma, were elected before the shootings and were already working on changing the way government operated, he said.

“We want to get away from cronyism in city government,” said Councilman Tom Stenger. “The City Council isn’t some sort of social club where people drink together and are friends. … City Hall is not a clubhouse.”

A few years ago, a deal brewing behind the scenes to sell or transfer 6 acres of city-owned property in downtown Tacoma to the University of Washington Tacoma would have happened instead of blowing up the middle of a public feud between council members, sources said.

The fact that it fell apart is evidence of one way Tacoma has changed in the aftermath of Brame.

Back-room deals have fallen out of vogue, if not completely out of practice.

Officials talk about openness and transparency in government more than ever, even if they don’t always practice it.

“There is a different mind-set,” said Walton, who spent more than 30 years working for the city. “Before Brame, the university would be in control of that property, I just have no doubt whatsoever.”

Councilman Rick Talbert agrees that Tacoma is better now because of what the city has endured.

The police department has a domestic violence policy that is a model for the rest of the state, Talbert said, and employees and their spouses have a clear understanding of services that are available to them.

But he dismisses the notion that City Hall is more open now because of Brame, or that the downtown property deal fizzled as a result of changes in the government culture.

“I believe we’ve always been transparent,” Talbert said. “The Brame tragedy intensified the viewing of what we do.”

Promises Kept, Promises Made

Following the David Brame homicide-suicide, independent reviews and public pressure helped prompt a series of reforms in the city and police department personnel, and in domestic violence and ethics policies and practices. Here are some of the key changes, and some items waiting for completion.

What’s changed

 • Police hiring process: The city has implemented a more formal checklist of procedures, and given more attention to background checks. Instead of one person conducting background checks part time, three people now work full time on background checks and hiring.

 • Domestic violence: The city has offered voluntary domestic violence training for employees, adopted a new policy on officer-involved domestic violence that’s considered a model for other departments, and worked on creating a city-county family justice that will be named for Crystal Judson.

 • Administrative leave: City Council approved a policy in February regarding administrative leave calling for detailed reasons for leave in writing and notifying an employee of any restrictions while on leave.

 • Police plan: Work is under way on a strategic plan for the police department that will include and update some of the issues identified in an outside audit done prior to the Brame shootings. Part of the effort includes surveying 5,000 citizens. The plan is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

What remains

 • Citizen oversight of police: A divided City Council agreed this year to establish an independent citizen board and office to oversee the police department despite objections from the police union leaders and Chief Don Ramsdell, but key parts of it remain to be negotiated with the labor unions.

 • Duty to report: After the Brame shooting, it was revealed that employees knew or should have known that Brame – in the midst of a divorce – was melting down at work. Then-City Manager Jim Walton wanted to require city employees or officers who learn that another employee either will not or cannot do his or her job report that to supervisors. But a proposed policy has yet to take effect. The Civil Service Review Board suggested revisions, and it’s now in the hands of officials in the city’s legal and human resources departments where more revisions are in the works, officials said.

 • Conduct unbecoming: Walton also wanted to broaden the definition of “conduct unbecoming” an officer or an employee of the city to include “lack of fitness to perform the essential functions of their job.” Grounds for discipline would include dishonesty, sexual misconduct, verbal tantrums and discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It also is pending approval from the Civil Service Review Board.

 • Annual performance evaluations of police officers: The department has developed a new employee evaluation system as part of its efforts to obtain accreditation. Final approval of the new system is being negotiated with police labor unions.

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542

jason.hagey@thenewstribune.com

Staff writer Kris Sherman contributed to this report.

Promises Kept, Promises Made

Following the David Brame homicide-suicide, independent reviews and public pressure helped prompt a series of reforms in the city and police department personnel, and in domestic violence and ethics policies and practices. Here are some of the key changes, and some items waiting for completion.

What’s changed

 • Police hiring process: The city has implemented a more formal checklist of procedures, and given more attention to background checks. Instead of one person conducting background checks part time, three people now work full time on background checks and hiring.

 • Domestic violence: The city has offered voluntary domestic violence training for employees, adopted a new policy on officer-involved domestic violence that’s considered a model for other departments, and worked on creating a city-county family justice that will be named for Crystal Judson.

 • Administrative leave: City Council approved a policy in February regarding administrative leave calling for detailed reasons for leave in writing and notifying an employee of any restrictions while on leave.

 • Police plan: Work is under way on a strategic plan for the police department that will include and update some of the issues identified in an outside audit done prior to the Brame shootings. Part of the effort includes surveying 5,000 citizens. The plan is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

What remains

 • Citizen oversight of police: A divided City Council agreed this year to establish an independent citizen board and office to oversee the police department despite objections from the police union leaders and Chief Don Ramsdell, but key parts of it remain to be negotiated with the labor unions.

 • Duty to report: After the Brame shooting, it was revealed that employees knew or should have known that Brame – in the midst of a divorce – was melting down at work. Then-City Manager Jim Walton wanted to require city employees or officers who learn that another employee either will not or cannot do his or her job report that to supervisors. But a proposed policy has yet to take effect. The Civil Service Review Board suggested revisions, and it’s now in the hands of officials in the city’s legal and human resources departments where more revisions are in the works, officials said.

 • Conduct unbecoming: Walton also wanted to broaden the definition of “conduct unbecoming” an officer or an employee of the city to include “lack of fitness to perform the essential functions of their job.” Grounds for discipline would include dishonesty, sexual misconduct, verbal tantrums and discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It also is pending approval from the Civil Service Review Board.

 • Annual performance evaluations of police officers: The department has developed a new employee evaluation system as part of its efforts to obtain accreditation. Final approval of the new system is being negotiated with police labor unions.

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