(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.”
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