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Originally published June 20, 2014 at 5:04 PM | Page modified June 22, 2014 at 11:53 PM

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Guest: How to change the culture of the Seattle Police Department

How police chief nominee Kathleen O’Toole can change the culture of the Seattle Police Department, according to guest columnists Stephen K. Rice and Karen Collins Rice.

Special to The Times

Stephen Rice

Associate professor of criminal justice at Seattle University

Karen Collins Rice

Independent organizational analyst

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[T]arget the police union as a prime civil rights violator Um, sure. Identify some violations of peoples' civil... MORE
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This is without doubt the most intelligent thing I have ever read, with regard to change within SPD. I have been... MORE


AMONG the focus areas in the City of Seattle’s settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the new police-chief nominee Kathleen O’Toole’s attention should key in on assertions of excessive use of force and biased policing.

The Seattle City Council is expected to confirm O’Toole as the new police chief on Monday.

While progress has been made by Mayor Ed Murray and the police department, problems persist. U.S. District Judge James Robart, federal monitor Merrick Bobb and Councilmember Tim Burgess all agree that more needs to be done.

To better understand why problems persist, and more importantly how to address them, O’Toole’s immediate opportunity would be to focus within the department itself.

Three core principles clarify the breadth and complexity of this endeavor. First, organizations are complex systems, so there is rarely a simple, targeted fix. Second, organizational culture is real — it is a driving force in how employees behave. Third, actors within a system are people, bringing with them the complexities of deeply felt individual and group histories.

Information on what makes for good policing is widely available. The challenge is the how. This will be O’Toole’s mandate.

Much like a pebble dropped in water, change has ripple effects in organizations. Change in one part of the organization frequently requires change in others, and leaders often overlook this interdependence. For example, with regard to sergeant span of control — an area of focus in the federal monitor’s plan for SPD compliance with the settlement agreement — identifying an appropriate metric has implications for training, incentives, performance measures and the role definition of other leaders, such as lieutenants.

Organizational systems are nested within a culture that tends to go under-acknowledged but has tangible, and even visceral, impacts on the people working within it. Systems and culture must both be considered in any change effort.

Take for instance sentinel events, which are negative outcomes that are the result of compound (systemic) errors more so than single factors. A useful practice for understanding and preventing future negative outcomes is the systemic analysis of all factors and conditions that led to the event. This strategy is already commonplace in aviation for better understanding crashes and in medicine for wrongful deaths. The key is to approach the analysis with a mind toward a comprehensive solution. Approaching DOJ’s assertions of biased policing and excessive force within a sentinel event’s framework would be helpful.

In order for this to work, SPD needs a culture where errors are assessed with clear eyes, in a blame-free environment. Inconsistent leadership causes people to duck and cover for fear of retribution, and that rarely leads to change.

Do not mistake a blame-free environment for a lack of accountability. The former refers to the spirit of problem solving; the latter is a nonstarter. Change cannot be achieved if the energy of an organization is directed toward avoiding or assigning blame. O’Toole can build a culture of accountability by committing equally to the people and the processes that produce results. All leaders in the department should hold themselves accountable by first asking, “How have I contributed to, or detracted from, success?”

Until leaders hold themselves accountable, they don’t have the currency to hold others accountable. As ethicist Virginia Sharpe explains, agnostic assessments of systemic errors create accountability going forward. It eliminates scapegoating and spurs collective problem solving.

There is no such thing as net-neutral leadership: Every action, non-action and conversation forwards or inhibits the attainment of organizational goals. This is the work that leaders do, creating a culture that enables and engages everyone in long-term, sustainable change.

Amid police-chief nominee O’Toole’s multitude of responsibilities during the first 100 days, focusing on organizational systems, culture and the centrality of people has the potential to build a powerful story.

Stephen K. Rice is associate professor of criminal justice at Seattle University. Karen Collins Rice is an independent organizational analyst.

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