New (but not-so-new) Southwest Precinct commander ‘ecstatic’

(From left, Capt. Steve Paulsen, Lt. Norm James, Capt. Joe Kessler)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

When now-Captain Steve Paulsen takes charge of the Seattle Police Department‘s Southwest Precinct in a few weeks, it’ll be a homecoming in a big way.

Following up on Wednesday’s news that he would be returning to West Seattle after eight months (mostly) downtown, where the precinct’s commander of 2 1/2 years, Capt. Joe Kessler, is moving to be West Precinct commander, we asked for a chance to chat with them both. The result was a two-hour conversation with Capts. Paulsen and Kessler and operations Lt. Norm James, looking ahead to what the change will – and won’t – bring.

But first – since the commanders past and present apparently did not get the news that far in advance, it’s still fresh.

It was widely expected that a promotion was in Paulsen’s future when he left the job Lt. James now holds – #2 at the SW Precinct – but still: “I was thrilled to get promoted,” he told us toward the start of the conversation, “and when it turned out I was going here, I was ecstatic. Joe and I (had been talking) five times a week, bouncing ideas off each other. We’re all excited.”

The two worked together for 10 years, including the almost-two years between Capt. Kessler’s arrival as SW commander (WSB coverage here) and then-Lt. Paulsen’s January move downtown (after four and a half years in West Seattle). Now for the first time they’ll be working together as peers with the role of precinct commander – though Capt. Paulsen is quick to point out that his former boss is taking on a precinct, stretching from Queen Anne and Magnolia to the stadiums south of downtown, that’s so big, it would be one of the nation’s largest police jurisdictions if it stood alone.

Obviously the major question is, with the commander moves, what else will change?

Not much, Capt. Paulsen insists, “We’re going to continue with the program … (but) we’re always evaluating practices. Can we do more with community outreach? How do we make it even better? You can’t rest on your laurels.”

By that, he means the reputation the precinct already has for community outreach – and the reputation this community has for its connections and involvement. Capt. Kessler says that’s made the Southwest Precinct role “one of the best assignments” available in the city, with a particularly vigilant citizenry, and he lauds WSB readers, as well as “dynamic Block Watches and neighborhood groups” – acknowledging that “it does change the dynamic, because there’s so much information out there.”

This month, for example, that “dynamic” has helped lead to a low number of break-ins so far – police are getting tips about casing, for example, and officers are working to follow up. Both captains make a point, repeatedly, of lauding “how good the officers are who work here.”

Southwest Precinct pride is even embodied in the new pins that local police are wearing (Capt. Paulsen didn’t have his on, quite yet):

Of course no one can/should stay in one place forever – moving between precincts can sharpen different skills, whether you are a patrol officer or a precinct commander. For most of his time this year away from the Southwest Precinct, Capt. Paulsen says, he was on second watch in the West Precinct – that wide-ranging turf that Capt. Kessler will soon oversee – where issues range from civility and safety issues in bustling nightlife districts like Belltown and Pioneer Square, to planning for major events that are held downtown, to working with businesses, and more.

Lt. James points out that downtown also experiences the huge influx and exodus each day of people who work there but live elsewhere.

Here in West Seattle and South Park – which together comprise the SW Precinct turf — we aren’t likely to see a protest involving hundreds or thousands of people, but then again, the West Precinct doesn’t have to know how to handle a busy, sunny day in early summer with huge crowds jamming a beach and maybe even cruising the street alongside it.

“It’s the presence – putting the right people in the right places at the right time,” Captain Kessler observes. And now more than ever, with the new focus announced by the new police chief back on Wednesday, when the command changes were announced too, those officers will be asked to engage even more with those they serve.

What else is ahead? While the emphasis during our conversation at the precinct was on stability – that doesn’t mean nothing will change. Though the two captains have long worked together and have a good relationship, “we have different styles,” Capt. Kessler insisted.

Capt. Paulsen spoke of the management skills that are mandatory for effective leadership – “how to make them [the precinct force) successful, because they’re going to be taking care of our neighborhoods.” He mentioned a goal of “Nordstrom-style” service.

Training is key too, given the unpredictable nature of police work – “It changes in a heartbeat,” Capt. Kessler reminded. “One minute you’re talking to somebody, the next minute he or she is pulling a gun or a knife out …” He did not specifically mention the incidents in which officers shot suspects recently – both the highly controversial John Williams shooting downtown, and the Thomas Qualls shooting here in West Seattle two weeks ago – but he alluded to the second-guessing that often ensues. “Everyone in the world knows how to do our job better than we do.” For those who think they know the motivation behind police work: “Most officers are here because they want to help people and arrest bad guys.”

Another aspect of the department’s newly reframed priorities is “reducing fear.” Capt. Paulsen thinks that can be tackled in a variety of ways, including programs that encourage people to get to know their neighbors.

“Fear is a perception,” interjects Capt. Kessler, going on to talk about the “mobile precinct” vehicle that used to appear often on Alki, and how it seemed to reduce people’s fear, even though it didn’t “really make a difference” in terms of what happened at the beach. Sometimes, though, the reassuring words that police would like to offer to fearful citizens aren’t possible to say. Capt. Kessler recalled the shooting death of Steve Bushaw in The Junction a year and a half ago , and how people were left for some months to fear random killers were on the loose and a threat to others, until arrests were made and a different story emerged: “I wish we could have said (sooner), ‘here’s the real story'” – but in the midst of the investigation, that’s just not often possible.

As we wrapped up our conversation, other Southwest Precinct police passed through the hallway, and warmly greeted their former and future supervisor. Capt. Paulsen had, in turn, once more summarized his philosophy – “what we expect … 1. Take care of yourselves. 2. Take care of our community. 3. Catch bad guys. 4. Have fun doing it.”

He’ll be back within the next few weeks, trying to facilitate that for the ~100 people of the Southwest Precinct he is now about to lead. And he repeats: He’s “thrilled, thrilled, thrilled.”

18 Replies to "New (but not-so-new) Southwest Precinct commander 'ecstatic'"

  • star 55 September 17, 2010 (5:03 pm)

    Having police presence in the Admiral, California, Morgan business areas on a regular basis is a good thing. Hope this does not change.

  • Irukandji September 17, 2010 (5:05 pm)

    Can’t WAIT for my Officers of the SW Precinct calendar!

  • WSB September 17, 2010 (5:08 pm)

    Star, there was actually an interesting aside from Lt. James at last night’s Alki Community Council – a story I haven’t written yet but will this evening – about another new program to help businesses and police work together … The leadership downtown, during the Wednesday mayor/police chief news conference, also talked more about “getting out of the car and walking” etc. – TR

  • Silly Goose September 17, 2010 (6:42 pm)

    West Seattle is so so lucky to have the best of the best right here protecting us!! I am one happy citizen to see these 3 representing our community as officers!!

  • wishingandhoping September 17, 2010 (9:19 pm)

    I can’t bring myself to be so enthusiastic about the WS Precinct and one of the things I notice about this blog having read it for ages but never wanting to get into the fray because it appears to me that if you are critical of police or other government employees or departments, you are considered an idiot or unpatriotic or something. It is intimidating to see that go on here. But, this is just too much for my neighborhood. I think many of us would gag on it. I won’t identify myself here because of how people seem to be constantly attacked here for any criticism of police work The WS precinct has a huge credibility problem in our neighborhood south of Lowman Beach Park for its almost complete unresponsiveness to our block captain (Kinlow and crew, listen up). I could go on and on, but I don’t expect anyone to care or listen, because that is how it has been so far for the last several months going on a couple of years. I expect the WSB to say the usual thing it seems to always say “take it up with the police.” Well, we have, time and time again, and it looks to us like only negative public opinion out in the open will have any affect at all. Nothing else has. So we are wishin’ and hopin’ for change. Hope you are listening in Captain Paulsen.

  • Silly Goose September 17, 2010 (9:39 pm)

    Okay wishingandhoping what would some of the problems be that you’ve called on and got no response to? I am trying to be sympathetic here, but you do realize that we live just a few blocks below an area where people are being stabbed, raped, robbed etc and calls do get placed in order of necessary emergency so I guess I am wondering what have your 911 calls been about that have gone un-noticed?

  • wishingandhoping September 18, 2010 (12:08 am)

    Actually not about response times and such. Mostly about just simple requests and communications with Kinlow which go unanswered and unresponded to. We have had home invasions, torching property, car break ins. Generally police have been responsive, but slow, or, in a couple of cases, unresponsive. Fire fighters have been way more responsive. It’s the lack of late night routine patrols to keep the chaos down in Lowman Beach Park. Just can’t get it, no matter what. As for you living close to stabbed, raped, robbed…. a few blocks away. I am not talking about a few blocks away, I am talking about a neighborhood that is only three blocks long and gets tons of drunk drivers heading south from Alki and missing their turn offs, crashing into cars on our block, constant alcohol and drug parties in Lowman Beach Park, and the things I already noted about home invasions, vandalism, fire-setting, car break-ins. So, are you saying that in a three block area of your own street, you get that kind of activity? I am not so sure trying to compare the extent of crimes in a given area is relevant to let’s say, Kinlow just responding to our block captain’s calls, but, if you want to compare like that, I guess you have our information now.

  • yimby September 18, 2010 (7:05 am)

    W&H, you have raised concerns about problems in your neighborhood and the response by public servant employees. You also mentioned feeling intimidated and attacked here.

    Last time I looked, citizens not only had the right but the duty to engage in public discourse. It shouldn’t have to be met by a backlash of a generous helping of petulance and rant, as too often seems to be the default setting of many when they can respond anonymously.

    Here in WS, we can be mere residents or we can be neighbors in the best sense of the word, engaged and civically responsible. We have a priceless source of information here in the WSB, with so much original reporting. Yet this news environment is not like the journalism we grew up with, requiring only our passive consumption.

    To maintain credibility in this resource for all of West Seattle, it is crucial that people who feel they have legitimate concerns may respectfully raise them without being unduly derided, bashed or flamed.

    Building trust and credibility is the #1 goal of “Risk Communication” (more on the net). When community concern is high and trust in authority is low, Perception equals Reality, or P=R. I wish more people knew about this kind of math.

    • WSB September 18, 2010 (7:59 am)

      Yimby, we have and enforce (to the best of our ability, but it’s an art, not a science) rules – unlike many news websites – that keep people from being bashed/flamed. The comments that would do that usually don’t see the light of day, as a filter catches them for review – you have no idea what nastiness has turned up in that filter and subsequently been sent to the trash. However, those rules do not prohibit criticism – in the vein that we usually describe as, “You can call my idea idiotic, but you can’t call me an idiot.” And if I try to explain what I know of police procedure and suggest that people take concerns directly to SPD, since there are unique opportunities to do so (like the monthly WSCPC meeting), that’s not bashing/flaming, nor is it even criticism. P.S. Regarding “anonymous” responses – real-name commenting cures nothing. The worst, nastiest comment discussions to which we have been witness have been on Facebook, where you are supposed to be using your real name. It’s all about a site’s rules. If you don’t think ours are tough enough, I am sorry to hear that, but believe me, we ourselves have been flamed and bashed for even having and enforcing them in the first place, and while we have reviewed and amended them over the years, where they are now is where I expect them to stay TFN – TR

  • LPeters September 18, 2010 (8:05 am)

    City Club’s Community Matters topic this year is Public Trust. They have people trained to come into any community group (organization, friends, neighbors, or whatever) and facilitate a dialog around this topic between now and Nov. 2nd. A report based on the conversations will be distributed to local elected officials. Perhaps you’d like to host one in your neighborhood? If so, contact Jessica Jones at 206-687-7395. If you’d like to see the report they produced last year. The topic was Education and Economic Opportunity. Here’s a link:

  • chas redmond September 18, 2010 (8:54 am)

    Wishingandhoping – have you contacted Tim Burgess – he’s the chair of the City Council safety committee. I suspect he might be able to assist in the Lowman Beach ongoing issues. You could also contact Tom Rasmussen, chair of the transportation committee on City Council, and start working with him on measures which would stop the late-night drunken crashing-and-banging.

  • sarelly September 18, 2010 (9:12 am)

    Thanks for an informative article. It is appreciated, and would be nice to see more that can give us insight about the work being done by the SPD.

    The following may also be informative:

    White Whine: Reflections on the Brain-Rotting Properties of Privilege, by Tim Wise.

  • Silly Goose September 18, 2010 (12:36 pm)

    Wishinandhopin, I guess I wasn’t clear on what I was saying about being only a few blocks away meant. When there are extremely violent crimes going on those will take presidence over possibly not so urgent incidents. That is why I ask “what the problems were that you had called on”. I only live a couple blocks from you and we have had our share of many many types of problems for years but a dilegent Block watch group and constant contact with our Community Police Team and attending the Crime Council meetings monthly has made our neighborhood for the most part calm and quiet! We now have a relationship with all of these orginazations so if and when a problem does arise they respond quickly and swiftly to handle it. Do you know who your Community Police Team is? Do you attend the Community Crime Council Meetings? The next one is Tuesday the 21st at the Southwest Precienct, the Communiy Officers will be there, the liquor board, and vairous other members that are involved in stopping activities in our neighborhood such as yours. I would really encourage you to attend to possibly get some assistance in your area or at least maybe some answers to you frustration. No one wants to have these things happening in our neighborhood, so we must all fight with the resources that are in place to deal with it. Good Luck don’t loose faith in the system it does work.

  • CeeBee September 18, 2010 (10:27 pm)

    Benjamin Kinlow has been covering 2 precincts all this year, for another Community Officer that retired. And it is expected that his position will be eliminated with budget cut proposals about to be released by the mayor. So I also strongly suggest that everyone learn about the community meetings that Silly Goose lists above, as we won’t have that police service much longer.

    I’d also to say how lucky we are to have Capt. Paulsen back at the SW Precinct. If we have to lose Capt. Kessler, Capt. Paulsen will be able to step right in.

  • wishingandhoping September 20, 2010 (7:01 am)

    thanks for the comments and suggestions, generally. I found the link to “White Whine” pretty derogatory (tell me if I am wrong on this) — as if I am white. You don’t know my color or my experiences in life. truly condescending. unless i missed the point. As for all the suggestions and recommendations, they are very helpful but I have one thought and question for pondering – if gov’t and gov’t service providers were doing their jobs, why all the need for the community “prodding”? I can understnad and fully support community involvement in the mix, but, in a sense, some of you confirm what I am saying – the services we pay for we have to also pay for by being “prodders” “consultants” and “advocates.” Really? That seems to be a kind of double payment. Why can’t we expect best practices without having to do so much work that is, really, honestly, not our job?

  • Silly Goose September 20, 2010 (8:35 am)

    Wishingandhoping well there are many reason’s we have had to become community advocates for our own protection
    1. Budget shorfall’s leaves a cut in officers
    2. White Center is unincorporated and the majority of offensive and dangerous crimes happen there that pull our officers out of our area, now it is handled by the sheriff but they are getting ready to lay off 28 officers as well.
    3. Why are you so against empowering yourelf with knowledge to help improve your situation. Get off the couch and take a stand for your property and neighborhood, you can’t expect everyone else to do it for you, as we are reading that isn’t working for you is it?

  • wishingandhoping September 21, 2010 (7:54 am)

    hi sillygoose: again good thoughts. I am clearly NOT against empowering myself and i am so far from a “couch” person, if you knew me, that it is laughable you would even use that term. i said it before – i am NOT going to declare my identity here for so many reasons I can barely count them. The fact is if you really want to fix budget shortfalls that affect neighborhood security and safety you should be lobbying for a dedicated tax base that can’t be messed with for such services, NOT asking neighborhoods to fight each other for better services. Let’s see how that works out – the neighborhoods with the most political clout get better services? Pitting one neighborhood against another? Higher income neighborhoods hiring their own security? At any rate, we are on the same channel, so let’s go get our local representatives to do the right thing… dedicated fund for safety and security that can’t be messed with. Cut somewhere else.

  • Silly Goose September 21, 2010 (11:11 am)

    Hi wishingandhoping, We do have a dedicated tax base it is called the “General Fund” I am being sarcastic, I am just as frustrated as you wtih the budget, but due to being so involved as a neighborhood vlounteer on so many levels, as well as my parish and daughters school I just don’t have the energy to take up another political fight, so I employ what is working for our neighborhood and it’s lawful reasources and it is working beautifully!

Sorry, comment time is over.