Jim Pugel intentionally held back yesterday as he was named Interim Seattle police chief. Asked for an interview, he said he was letting Chief John Diaz, who had just announced his retirement, do “all the press” that day. It was a tactful move, one that underscored the close relationship between the two men, who have spent 30 years together on the force.
This morning, however, Pugel is ready to talk. Speaking by phone with Seattle Weekly for close to an hour, the 53-year-old police veteran makes clear that he has no intention of fighting the Department of Justice’s critical characterization of his department. While many people inside SPD believe that the DOJ overstated how much excessive force is used, Pugel asserts that it doesn’t matter in the end.
The court-ordered monitoring team, arising from a settlement with the DOJ, is already here. “Get over it,” Pugel says. “We can make this work.” And, in fact, he says he has already been working with the team of monitor Merrick Bobb.
Pugel, currently serving as an assistant chief, is an attractive character for Bobb—and SPD’s critics—to deal with. Over the past few years, he’s developed a national and even international reputation as a reformer. In large part, that’s come from his participation in Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, known as LEAD, a program that channels low-level drug offenders and prostitutes into social service programs rather than jail (profiled in a Seattle Weekly cover story in May of last year). Pugel says he has given talks on the subject everywhere from Washington D.C. to Vienna.
He talks passionately about the program and the “harm reduction” principle behind it, which he says is one of the things he would most like to work on while he is interim chief. That principle holds that officers should try to reduce the harm people are causing themselves and the community, rather than merely trying to arrest their way out of a problem.
Through that program, he has already won over some of SPD’s critics. One of them, Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of The Defender Association and a driving force behind LEAD, calls Pugel an “outstanding choice as interim chief,” someone who “can engage with issues of urban poverty and drug addiction in a smart way.”
Illustrating how much attitudes toward SPD have changed, Pugel recalls that early LEAD meetings between the various participating groups took place at Evergreen Treatment Services, a non-profit that works with drug abusers. In the beginning, he says, some Evergreen staff didn’t even want to let police officers “into the building.” In the past, officers had come to Evergreen solely to arrest its clients. Now, he says, there’s so much cooperation going on that “it’s just like a love fest.”
But it’s one thing to support reformist efforts around a feel-good program, as novel and politically sensitive as that may be. It’s another to take on the culture around use of force. This has been the blind spot of just about every police commander in Seattle—and in the country. The jury’s out on whether Pugel is an exception.
It would not seem so from one case he reviewed, that of a man named Isaac Ocak who was stopped outside Westwood Village mall in West Seattle because his car was idling in front of a store. As it seemed from a dash-cam video of the 2010 encounter, officers beat the crap out of the guy for no apparent reason.
Yet, Pugel wrote a memo justifying the officers’ actions, saying that Ocak was “physically and verbally defiant and aggressive”—a description that was at odds with what you could see on the video. Pugel later told SW he hadn’t watched the video before writing that memo.
This morning, he says he did finally watch the video, although he doesn’t remember it all that well. Still, he continues to say that the use of force was justified, even if “the verbal conduct could have been way better.” And even if there was a problem with the force used in this incident, he continues, it represents “such a small percentage” of force cases in the department overall.
That may well be true. But it’s hard to believe when, every time one of these damning videos comes out, police commanders essentially shrug their shoulders and portray the behavior shown as normal. If these incidents are unconscionable exceptions, Pugel would do well in his new role to say so.