Chief complaint

LIKE THE REST OF US, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske is learning that there's never a cop around when you need one. Rank-and-file members of the Seattle Police Officers Guild are deciding by mail-in ballot whether they have confidence in their leader, and a sampling of cops on the street shows many don't. "He's just a politician," spat one. The rare popularity vote is only advisory, however, and Mayor Greg Nickels has already said he's not jettisoning the chief, whose major screwup was last year's soft-headed Mardi Gras security strategy—the opposite of this week's proactive zero-tolerance approach in Pioneer Square.

It seems a little late to be reckoning with Fat Tuesdays past, although guild president Mike Edwards says the 1,200 members have several beefs with the chief. The catalyst appears to be Kerlikowske's recent discipline of officer Jess Pitts, the patrolman who supposedly nabbed a group of students for Jaywalking While Asian (JWA).

Pitts stopped the 14 pedestrians (mostly teens) in July for jaywalking en masse across Fourth Avenue South. Some members of the Asian-American community felt that he was, in part, racially motivated; Pitts, a Native American, said the jaywalkers were risking injury or death.

Kerlikowske concluded that everybody overreacted. An elaborate 16-page report issued by the department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), based on 33 taped interviews (remember, this began as a jaywalking incident) concluded that the JWA claim was groundless but Pitts could have been more tactful than berating their street-crossing skills. (His admonition, "Does anybody here know how to cross the street in Seattle?" sounds like a light-bulb joke, the answer being: "Yes, never in front of Officer Pitts.")

So why wasn't that the end of it? Pitts got a wrist slap for unbecoming conduct (he discredited the department in "a minor but not insignificant way") and the jaywalkers got their day in court; everybody move along now. But some Asian community leaders are talking lawsuit and say Pitts got off too easy (he was cleared of racial profiling). The guild, meanwhile, is irked that the complaint-resolution report on Pitts was published on OPA's Web site (www.cityofseattle.net/police/OPA/default.htm).

Anyone who has tried to pry loose a Seattle Police Department internal investigation report in the past has to be amazed to find such details now just a few clicks away. But of course that's what OPA promised—a new era in complaint investigation and disclosure. This is OPA director Sam Pailca's first big dustup since her appointment in January 2001. That it has prompted a crisis suggests there are much bigger issues at stake than Kerlikowske's management style. Besides, how does that old saw go? If everyone's mad at you, you must be doing something right.

Rick Anderson randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus