by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Last month I met with Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel at the Seattle Police Department's downtown headquarters. Pugel, a veteran officer and native Washingtonian, agreed to an interview with Seattle Gay News promising to answer any and all questions on the record, with no subject off-limits or taboo. As we sat in his office, with a view of the Sound in the distance, Pugel honored the terms of the interview - and then some. He was forthcoming with information and detailed his answers to questions with personal opinion whenever appropriate. The biggest takeaway I got from our June 14 meeting is that he has no intention of operating in secret or out of the public eye. Seattle is home to Pugel - always has been and always will be, he says, and due to this fact, he is dedicated to improving its police department so that it can be ranked among the best in the nation. He is a man dedicated to the basic principles of policing and asks that Seattleites 'get to know your officer.'
Jim Pugel, who was named interim chief April 8, is camera-ready. His smile is genuine, he is well-groomed and handsome, and if I didn't know any better, I'd think he was campaigning for public office. The man has got charisma, and when he engages you in conversation, he is present throughout its duration. Which is pretty impressive considering the mountain of work that he carries on his shoulders day in and day out.
Let's be honest, Seattle police chief is not exactly the dream job veteran officers hope for. Like most police departments, SPD has seen its share of scandal, controversy, and allegations of excessive force fueled by racist sentiment. Only, SPD stepped in it so much that the Department of Justice intervened to put a stop to bad policing practices, resulting in a settlement agreement and the 'SPD 20/20' policing plan. The feds are here to stay, there exists a large (and growing) population of anarchist anti-police groups, and it seems like every time you turn around, there are allegations of excessive uses of force, abuse of power, and more being lobbed at the embattled department.
Who in their right mind would accept the job as head of this department, let alone be an officer in the first place? Jim Pugel, please step forward.
As assistant chief, Pugel - a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate - has overseen the Homicide, CSI, Robbery, Gang, Vice/High-Risk Victims Unit, Sexual Assault, Major Crimes, Domestic Violence, Auto Theft, Fraud, and Forensic Support units, and is also the department's lead for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot program, which offers low-level drug offenders the opportunity to get treatment instead of jail time.
When it comes to policing, Pugel has pretty much done it all. The term, 'Been there, done that' applies to this man.
Pugel began his involvement with SPD as a volunteer reserve officer in 1981, and his professional career was launched when he was hired as an officer in January 1983. Pugel worked beats throughout the city before being assigned to the SWAT team in 1986. He was promoted to sergeant in January 1990.
As a sergeant, Chief Pugel supervised in the East Precinct and the Basic Training Academy before being reassigned to SWAT. He was promoted to lieutenant in January 1994 and served as both a watch commander and an operations lieutenant in the East Precinct before commanding the Sexual Assault Unit. Pugel also served as the administrative aide to the chief before being promoted to captain of the West Precinct in March 1999. He was promoted to assistant chief in July 2000 and most recently commanded the Field Support Bureau and the Investigations Bureau.
Now, there's always two ways to look at anything. On one hand, you've got a man with a proven track record of good police work, strong leadership, and a dedication to keeping Seattle's citizens safe from crime. Or, you could look at Pugel as a man who has spent decades learning bad practices from bad officers with bad attitudes.
After meeting with Pugel, my assessment is that he is a little bit of both. Which is a good thing - Pugel survived the WTO debacle (and its fallout), has witnessed the acceptance of Gay officers and women in the department, and seen his fair share of scandal-plagued officers go down for crimes they deserved to go down for - which means he knows what works and what does not. He is also not bigoted or homophobic, and as far as I can tell, he really gives a damn about the safety of citizens and officers alike.
I'm not naming him the best police chief the department has ever seen, or ever will see, but I am saying that if there was anyone who presumably has got what it takes, it's Pugel.
DRUG POLICY REFORMER
Mayor McGinn praised Pugel for his 'progressive thinking' when announcing his appointment as successor to Chief John Diaz. Others have echoed those sentiments.
Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, said, 'For those interested in re-imagining drug policy, Jim Pugel is a champion. Courage of conviction is necessary to commit to new and innovative policing models. Chief Pugel's long commitment to harm reduction and his role in developing the LEAD program reflect an intelligence and humanitarian orientation toward drug issues that is rare in American policing. He is a visionary choice to lead SPD.'
Laura Thomas, M.P.H., M.P.P., deputy state director of the San Francisco Drug Policy Alliance, said, 'Jim Pugel has emerged as a national leader in the effort to move law enforcement toward drug policies based in science, compassion, health, and human rights. Chief Pugel has been an effective spokesman to national and international audiences on the effectiveness of harm-reduction approaches in drug law enforcement. It is a welcome development for such an innovator in drug policy reform to take the helm in a major police department.'
On the first day he officially took office as interim Seattle police chief, Pugel didn't waste any time making changes. His first order of business? To reorganize the command staff, giving him direct communication with the heads of each bureau. Deputy Chief Nick Metz and Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer became assistant chiefs, along with Mike Sanford, Paul McDonagh, and Dick Reed.
'That reflects much more with what large major police departments from around the nation are,' Pugel said. 'There's always a chief and then the second-in-command is assistant police chief.'
Pugel is not only talking about it, he is walking the walk. In March a federal judge approved a first-year plan to overhaul the Seattle department, after the Department of Justice (DOJ) found in December 2011 that 20 percent of police use-of-force incidents were excessive and that officers had displayed evidence of biased policing.
The organizational moves are part of his plan to create direct lines of communication as he works to implement changes directed by the DOJ settlement. Pugel said early resistance by officers to the changes is now gone.
RETHINKING 'TERRY STOPS'
'We've been working with the monitoring team and the Department of Justice as well as our audit and professional responsibility section under Mike Sanford in crafting new Terry stop policy and procedure, stop-and-frisk policy procedure, and biased policing,' Pugel said.
The Community Police Commission will have a strong say in what goes into the new policies on those so-called Terry stops, where police detain people briefly on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The goal is to make sure everyone is treated fairly.
Pugel says he's focusing on the job at hand but also has the permanent chief's position in his sights.
'I think I can bring a new, not necessarily a better angle, but a new angle that will lead us in a positive direction that will support good, honest, ethical police work that will continue to make the city safer and hopefully reduce the harm that we come across on a daily basis,' Pugel said.
'Yes, there was a lot of turmoil ... John was at the tip of the sword without a road map, with a lot of competing interests,' Pugel said of Diaz, who sometimes angrily disputed the DOJ's findings and was involved in the often tense negotiations that led to last summer's settlement agreement.
'That's all done. It's past ... we're all moving forward,' he said.
A SEATTLE MOSSBACK
Pugel is a local through and through. He told Seattle Gay News that he's 'lived in almost every single neighborhood of the city.'
One of nine children, Pugel grew up in Seattle and graduated from O'Dea High School and the University of Washington. The father of two adult children - a daughter and a son - Pugel said his grandfather was a former editor and publisher of the Tri-City Herald newspaper. His younger brother, Michael Pugel, is a sergeant and diver with SPD's Harbor Patrol unit.
'I love this city,' Pugel told SGN. 'The beauty of it all is that Seattle is always changing. And usually, it's a progressive change at the very least.'
'One person cannot take care of this department,' said Pugel, adding that the entire command staff is 'extremely loyal to the mission, extremely loyal to the city.'
'PEOPLE LOST FAITH'
So where did it all go wrong for SPD? After all, Pugel was an officer with the department when things began to go sour.
'Somewhere along the way, people lost faith in the department,' he said. 'People started to look at officers as outsiders coming into their neighborhoods to harass them or worse.'
Pugel intends to do all he can to change that perception of a department he says is, 'a really good police department with some really great people working for it.'
'The people are the police,' he said, 'The police are the people.'
'We are a legitimate organization,' Pugel continued.
Across the nation, police departments, much like the military, have battled allegations of homophobia, racism, and sexism. In this regard, I found Pugel to be extremely forthcoming and honest with his assessment of how the department operates and reacts to officers accused of or engaging in such behavior.
'There was definitely sexism in the department up until the mid-1980s,' he admits. 'Times have changed. I don't know of any female officers who would put up with that, and I can say that we've got a lot of family-oriented men on our force, so I can't imagine that male officers would allow it to go on unchecked.'
Race relations are tough - there's no doubt about it. Pugel and I discussed the topic and, after admitting that there is no real way to prevent people from being prejudiced, he did say, 'We can't control something like that but we can control how we deal with our reaction to an officer who engages in racism, discrimination, and other undesirable behavior.'
When asked about homophobia among the ranks, Pugel looked at me and, with deliberate certainty, said, 'Absolutely not. We've got Gay and Lesbian officers and they do not report to me that there has been a problem or that a problem currently exists.'
When I pressed the issue Pugel gave me several examples of how he, in particular, has Gay friends, supports the community, and has in many ways been an advocate for our community when times were different and homophobia in police work was the order of the day.
Pugel, at one time, was the chair of the LGBT community advisory council to the SPD. He is knowledgeable of our terminology and is culturally competent.
'If I ever hear of any of our officers acting out in homophobia or even using anti-LGBT slurs or language, I will deal with them immediately,' he promised. 'We don't condone it, and we never will.
'I think the answer is to just keep it simple because there really only is one way to approach these issues as a leader,' he continued. 'Discipline bad behavior and promote good behavior.
'We do our best when recruiting, training, and instilling a sense of morality throughout the department,' he said. 'Every now and then you're going to get a bad apple. It's my job to make sure we identify those officers and deal with them accordingly.'
1986: THE INFAMOUS VIDEO
Pugel is human. I think that is something to remember. For the most part, someone's actions explain a situation but rarely define you as a person. Pugel recently saw a bit of bad publicity when his past collided with the present.
Pugel has recently issued an apology for his role in a 1986 department-sponsored video that mocks the homeless. It shows a group of Seattle police officers, including Pugel, dressed as homeless men underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, drinking, breaking into cars, and being rousted by police. The video, complete with costumes, prop wine bottles and choreography, is set to the tune of The Drifters' 1964 hit song, 'Under the Boardwalk.'
It didn't go over well with the department's brass even at the time, he said.
'Even by 1980s standards, the Seattle Police Department considered this video to be insensitive and inappropriate,' Pugel said in a written apology.
'I regret my participation,' he said. 'I am truly sorry ... I've been embarrassed about it ever since.'
Pugel said he and the other officers who participated in the video were 'soundly reprimanded' by then-Chief Patrick Fitzsimons, who ordered copies of the video destroyed.
Only one copy remained in the SPD's video archive. Pugel knew that. And this is why I think he is the right man for this job at this point in time: He did not lie to the mayor when he interviewed for the job. br />
'As a police department, we have much work to do to strengthen our relationships in the community,' Pugel said. 'Sometimes that means addressing an ugly piece of our history head-on.'
The department posted the video and an apology on its website, and Pugel said he had planned to release the video and an apology anyway after conducting a 'skeleton search' when McGinn approached him about the job as interim chief.
Pugel, who was a SWAT officer when the video was made, said it has been a topic in every promotion interview he's had since.
Still, despite its age, the video provoked some outrage among homeless advocates. Pugel has since changed, however, say those familiar with his work around the issue.
Homeless advocate Scott Morrow says Pugel has been nothing but respectful to the population he helps. 'He always stops and takes an interest in the community we work with and that really does impress me. In real life he's been compassionate, a listener, and I think sincere, when he's run across us.'
Lisa Daugaard, co-chair of The Defender Association and the deputy director of the new Seattle Community Police Commission, defended Pugel as a reformer who, like many in that role, 'have come to view with regret things they did early in their career that seemed just part of police culture at the time.
'We want someone leading the department who would find this reprehensible,' Daugaard said. 'According to Chief Pugel's statement, he does.'
Pugel is not a cliché; in fact, throughout our conversation he didn't come across as being corny - except once (and he knew it, too). But the message and meaning are needed at this time.
'I know this might sound corny to some, but at the police department we don't see race, religion, sexual orientation,' said the interim chief. 'Everybody is blue.'
'This is a good department,' he added, 'but it could definitely get better. We are working on it.'
On Sunday, June 30, SPD officers, including Pugel, marched in the Pride Parade. They got cheers the whole way. In a car just behind the chief was a Gay officer and his husband. Painted on the rear window of the police cruiser: JUST MARRIED. That is not spin. That is someone's life. That is a married cop. Not a married Gay cop. Pugel knows the difference. And we should all take note of that.
It is not the opinion of the writer that Pugel will do all good, all the time. But I will say that he damn sure will try. I left our meeting that day thinking, hoping, that Pugel really is the right man for the job at the right time. Only time will tell.
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