By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
What Seattle Police Captain Joe Kessler has just done is almost unheard of, he says:
SPD commanders almost never return for an encore at a precinct they have led before.
Yet this week, two years and three months after he turned over command of West Seattle’s Southwest Precinct to Capt. Steve Paulsen, Capt. Kessler got it back, while his successor/predecessor moved on to lead the Beacon Hill-headquartered South Precinct.
“It’s like walking back into (your family’s) home after being away at college,” he observed.
We visited the precinct at Delridge and Webster Thursday to talk with Capt. Kessler about his return, what he’s been doing since leaving West Seattle, and what’s in store now that he’s back:
After leaving the SW Precinct, Capt. Kessler took over the sprawling West Precinct, very different from this area, for about a year and a half.
His time as West Precinct commander was intense – including the Occupy Seattle rallies, marches, and encampments. Because the West Precinct includes downtown, its work frequently involves protests, rallies, parades, other special events, and keeping the peace in the early-morning hours after bars let out in busy nightlife districts. “We made a lot of progress downtown” during his tenure, Capt. Kessler says.
Then he moved onto a different beat – working on ethics and community-outreach projects, spending many of the ensuing months working with Mayor Mike McGinn and team from an office in City Hall downtown.
His role in the big-picture projects isn’t over; in fact, after our conversation, Capt. Kessler – in a business suit rather than SPD-uniform blue – was headed downtown for a meeting.
Most recently, his work bridging policing and politics focused, he said, on the Safe Communities project, which he says is about to move to its third phase – circling back with community members to determine how to turn requests and recommendations into action. (Here’s our coverage of the September Safe Communities meeting in West Seattle; here’s a followup document summarizing points made.)
SPD, he points out, tends to move captains around every two years or so. And the dominoes that led to he and Capt. Paulsen moving, Capt. Kessler says, started with the recent retirement of Traffic Division Capt. Dick Belshay. The department needed someone with major Traffic Division experience to take over, and decided on previous South Precinct Capt. Mike Nolan. (Kessler and Paulsen also spent a lot of time working in Traffic.)
With the South Precinct move in store for Capt. Paulsen – who had spent more than six of the previous seven years at Southwest, as its second-in-command Operations Lieutenant before his promotion to Captain during a return downtown that in turn preceded his return to Southwest as commander – Deputy Chief Nick Metz asked Capt. Kessler if he would return to West Seattle.
So, is he here to make changes? No – the precinct runs very well, its “new” commander insists, and he includes the community in that – “It’s the best environment – a supportive community, engaged (staff), great command staff.”
The community support is especially important now, as is internal support for officers, with an even-more-intense year ahead. While SPD is hiring, the captain points out that the hiring process isn’t a speedy one – applicants must be vetted and trained, which takes months. And training this year involves not just new officers but also the existing force, because of changes related to SPD’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The department is trying to balance training with schedules – you can’t have an officer go to an 8-hour training session back to back with a shift on patrol, for example.
The training plan also comes into play when we ask a question we often hear, whether the precinct’s front desk will return to full-time staffing any time soon. While Capt. Kessler says, “Any commander would like to have a clerk on duty 24 hours a day,” he says that’s impossible to do any time soon, particularly because of the need to keep as many people on patrol as possible while some are away for that training.
We asked about this area’s major crime problem – property crime. Reducing it is a matter of “arresting the right bad guys,” Capt. Kessler says – and with support, the men and women on the street, and the precinct’s “great detectives and great Community Police Team,” can make that happen, he is confident. He tells a story about catching, in another place and time, someone who was responsible for hundreds of burglaries. With good community partnerships and neighborhood knowledge, multiple cases can be solved – and more crimes prevented – when those “right bad guys” are nabbed. He also makes note of multi-agency efforts to seek longer sentences for the worst of the worst, such as the Repeat Burglar Initiative.
And we asked about the precinct command staff; key members sometimes change when a new commander arrives. Capt. Kessler isn’t expecting any major changes any time soon; he speaks enthusiastically about the precinct’s second-in-command, Operations Lt. Pierre Davis, who he is clearly glad to say will be continuing in that role, and continuing department-wide work in the 20/20 project.
So how long will Capt. Kessler be here this time? He allows that it might be his last assignment, now that he is in his fourth decade with SPD, which he joined right out of college in 1981 – becoming a commander ten years later. “I’m hoping to end my career here,” he says, “hoping it’ll be my last stop.” He adds that, having worked at every precinct and in most if not all major SPD units, “I’ve had a pretty good run.” But even if this is the last stop, it’s only just begun, and as he points out, precinct-commander appointments usually last at least two years, and they’re intense: “Precinct commander is a pinnacle – you’re ultimately responsible for everything that happens, 24 hours a day.”