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Professor: Transparency will be key as four regional police agencies get new leaders

Four of the region’s largest police agencies will see big changes in the near future.

Pierce County voters are choosing a new sheriff for the first time in about 20 years. In King County, voters are deciding whether to make the sheriff’s job elected or appointed.

Seattle police Chief Carmen Best is departing next week, with Interim Chief Adrian Diaz taking the helm and a search for a permanent replacement to come later.

And Tacoma police Chief Don Ramsdell is retiring in January. He’s the longest serving chief in Tacoma’s history. Mayor Victoria Woodards has promised to engage with the community in the search for a replacement.

These changes are happening during — and in some cases because of — calls for increased police accountability. KNKX spoke with Seattle University law professor Deborah Ahrens about what the changes might mean. Listen to the conversation in the audio player above.


On electing a sheriff, versus appointing one:

“I think if it’s the voters making the decision, you probably end up with a police chief or a sheriff who’s probably going to be more responsive to the community directly, assuming the community is informed about the issues in the first place, and they’re invested in the election. At least in my experience, oftentimes district attorney elections, sheriff elections — they’re low-information elections. They’re often not even contested. Voters are simply voting for a name that looks familiar to them because they don’t know a lot about policing policy. It’s entirely possible, given the events of the past six months or so, that your average voter is going to be more invested in these elections as well as more informed about them.”

On departments choosing new leaders:

“The main things I would be looking for are ‘How transparent are they going to be?’ In other words, how much information are we going to be able to get as citizens going forward about what police do? Are we going to have access to information about their disciplinary records? And then secondly, what are the accountability measures going to be? In many communities there are citizen review boards that have been set up over the past 20 years or so that do have some information about what’s happening inside a police agency. More transparency, more community input. But what they don’t necessarily have is the ability to enforce any accountability measures. So the second thing I’d be looking for is: How does this new police chief intend to create accountability for themselves and for officers? Accountability, consequences, and transparency. Those are the things I’d be looking for.”

On how her law students have changed:

“I have, for 10 years now, assigned this group of articles … that range from Justice (Clarence) Thomas at one end saying police are great, more discretion for police, more police, more money, give them whatever they want, they’re awesome. And then all the way over at the other end, there is a book chapter by a professor named Robin D.G. Kelley, who is at UCLA now, that basically says burn the whole thing down. Policing cannot be saved. It is a colonial, racist institution through and through. When I first started teaching that article, the students would come in and be like, ‘It’s nice for you to provide that for us but that seems pretty radical and academic and out there,’ and now I usually get a number of students who come in the first day and say ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I think.’ And that’s different.

“I’m always kind of skeptical about the pull to the middle, like, as long as you’re in the middle you must be reasonable. Because sometimes that’s just not the case. But I do think having lots of different voices in the conversation is the only way anything’s ever going to get done. You’re not going to get anything done if you’re sitting in an echo chamber only talking to people who share your own perspective.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.