As Murray Jilts Pugel, the Search for SPD Chief Takes Shape

The widely stated goal is 90 days, and we’re a week into the Ed Murray administration. This suggests that in a mere 83 days - at the very least by spring - Seattle should have its next police chief.

This might be good news or bad news for the man who until very recently (like, this morning) was leading the Seattle Police Department. Now-former Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel hasn’t been shy in declaring his aspirations for the job, but over the weekend — and then even more so yesterday - Pugel’s prospects took what most consider to be a serious hit. As KIRO TV reported Saturday, a press conference Mayor Murray was scheduled to give earlier this week was canceled after an unnamed source told the station that the mayor planned to publicly name a new interim chief. “The press conference was canceled because the Mayor needed to consider the implications of Pugel being interim chief while competing for the job,” Murray Spokesperson Rosalind Brazel told Seattle Weekly Tuesday. “The Mayor needed to consider the ramifications of Interim Police Chief Pugel being part of the application process.”

By late Tuesday afternoon, however, those ramifications had apparently been considered. KIRO Radio’s Brandi Kruse and Steve Miletech of the Seattle Times both reported that Murray would indeed name Harry Bailey interim chief Wednesday, officially replacing Pugel - who will now serve as an assistant chief.

For Pugel, it might not be as damning as it appears at first blush. Yes, he’s out of the interim chief gig, but the line of thinking from the mayor’s office is straightforward: Having a known applicant leading the force could make the job less appealing to any qualified cop outside of Seattle. “It can create the appearance that it’s wired in,” City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology committee, told Seattle Weekly of the potential conflict, weeks before the change had been made.

In this light, the shake-up could be a good thing for Pugel. Murray could have declared he wouldn’t be hiring Pugel, kept him as interim chief, and achieved the same end. But he didn’t. It’s well known that Pugel wants the job – and Murray’s move suggests he’s at least considered a contender.

That said, given the desire for a fresh start at an agency operating under a Department of Justice consent decree, many expect the job to eventually go to an outsider, recruited to Seattle via a national search. It’s no secret that some members of the City Council would prefer this approach. And both supporters and detractors of Pugel have told Seattle Weekly over the last month that they believe Pugel’s chances of getting the job are next to none. At least one source has indicated that Pugel “shot himself in the foot” when he demoted Assistant Seattle Police Chief Nick Metz, which was seen in some circles as going rogue. Meanwhile, Pugel’s supporters--who backed the move to demote Metz and say it was bolstered by a November report from federal monitor Merrick Bobb that indicated SPD had been slow to embrace reform – admit that, while they’d love to see it, they don’t envision Pugel ultimately taking the reins of SPD full-time.

So does this mean Pugel is doomed? Probably, but not necessarily. “I hope that Chief Pugel puts his name in the ring,” offers Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who says he’s been impressed by the former interim chief’s willingness to make tough decisions. “I hate to judge his odds at this point.”

If Pugel doesn’t get the gig, the question becomes: Will Seattle be able to attract a candidate capable of leading SPD out of one of the agency’s darker hours? Despite the shadow of the DOJ consent decree hanging over the Emerald City, Harrell believes the answer is yes, and he says one of the main reasons why is because Mike McGinn is no longer in charge. In 2010 McGinn named John Diaz – an SPD insider who had been serving on an interim basis after the resignation of Chief Gil Kerlikowske – to the post. In retrospect, the decision leaves something to be desired.

“It’s very apparent that [finding a new chief] is [Murray’s] priority, and he will conduct a very thorough national search,” says Harrell.

“[McGinn] did not run as a public safety candidate. He had zero public safety background,” Harrell continues when asked why the pool of applicants was small in 2010, and why he thinks it will be better this time. “ [Applicants will] look at Murray and realize that he came in as a possible change agent and as a contrast to McGinn. … I think a chief would be attracted to that kind of performer.”

O’Brien says that, with the lackluster hiring of Diaz in the rear-view mirror, the Council is doing everything it can to make Seattle an attractive landing spot to potential national candidates, from earmarking money for department analysis to crafting legislation that would allow an outsider to bring colleagues to Seattle that they have experience working with in the past.

“Obviously, being under the consent decree is a challenge, but for an individual who wants to be a chief, I think this is a real place for some leadership,” says O’Brien. “For the right candidate, this is a really great opportunity.”

Just maybe not for Pugel.

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