A new leader for the East Precinct

In May of this year, Captain Paul McDonagh took on his new position as East Precinct commander, taking over from Landy Black, who took a new position in Davis, Calif., after nearly two years at the precinct. McDonagh, who was born and raised in the Seattle area, joined the Seattle Police Department in 1983 prior to finishing college. His first assignment was as a patrol officer at the East Precinct, though he moved to the West Precinct shortly after and later become a field training officer. He then worked in an Anti-Crime Team. His next position was in a SWAT team, first working in plain-clothes enforcement and high-risk search warrants. He spent 13 years in SWAT, was promoted to sergeant during his tenure there. In April 2000, McDonagh was promoted to lieutenant and worked in the evidence unit and the identification section. After 9/11, he worked in the police operations center, which does pre-planning for special events and prepares for large-scale disasters. In this capacity he's spent a great deal of time working on homeland security issues. McDonagh was promoted to captain on May 3 this year on what was his 24th anniversary with the Seattle Police Department. He recently spoke with Capitol Hill Times editor Doug Schwartz about his new position. Here is the first of a two-part interview.
How did you decide to become a police officer?

It was kind of in the family blood. I got interested in police work because my grandfather was a Chicago police officer, and three uncles are retired Chicago cops. But I didn't really think about becoming a police officer until I took a criminal justice class in college. I changed my major and decided to become a police officer.

I thought of working for the federal government. But I grew up here, loved the area and when the opportunity came to stay home I took it.

There's been a lot of East Precinct commander turnover lately (eight commanders in eight-plus years). Does such turnover create continuity challenges?

There are challenges anytime you get a new person. There's a learning curve that naturally occurs, things like getting to know who's who and what's going on. It's probably been difficult for all of us, but I don't think rotation is a bad thing. A precinct assignment is good for captain-level officers, because it provides for well rounded experience. I feel I'm pretty lucky to get a precinct command right off instead of a more administrative position.

Three shifts of officers, a detective crew, outreach - there's a lot going on at the precinct.

Will people notice much of a difference between yourself and Captain Black?I'm not really sure. With homeland security work I didn't see much of how Captain Black worked. But I did spend time with him before he left, and it's clear we both agreed that working with the community is very important.

One big difference might be that I like to get out and back the officers on calls, see what they're doing, see what's going on in the community. I didn't ask Landy this, but I think I'm probably going to be out driving around more. I might have surprised some officers already by being out a lot.

I hope people won't see any negative changes. But people may see me out on the street a little more.

Any first impressions?

The main thing is the community takes a very active roll in working with the police and also city departments. The community is far more involved in their own activities and their community than was my perception before I arrived. The feeling I have is that people here are here to stay. This is their home, not just a place where they live. Because of that, they take a direct and vested interest in what's going on around them, whether that's SPD, the streets, the parks...it's really good to see.

What community groups have you met with so far?

The East Precinct Crime Prevention Coalition is the largest one I've visited so far. For my first month I was still finishing up some of my Homeland Security work, so meeting with many of the other groups is something I still need to do. I've been to several community block watch meetings. I met with the First Hill Improvement Association and will probably next attend a meeting of the Broadway Business Improvement Association.

One thing that's good is that even though some people see me at different meetings, I get to hear issues from many different perspectives.

What kind of staffing levels are we looking at these days?

Well, to say the whole department is in need of staffing is accurate. And it's a big priority to get more officers hired. One, we have officers who have retired. And we're going to be getting more than 100 new officers in the city.

That will assist us in implementing neighborhood policing. In terms of the East Precinct, we're not at full staffing. But we are keeping officers on their emphasis patrols and we aren't falling below our minimum staffing levels. Sometimes that means overtime.

What is neighborhood policing?

It's trying to organize police resources to more accurately reflect calls for service - meaning 911 calls - and still provide proactive time for the officers on patrol.

One of the biggest issues facing us as a department is that that officers don't have a lot of proactive time to go out and meet with the community and get a feel for the neighborhood because they're moving from call to call to call. What we're hoping to do is change shift hours to put officers where they're needed most based on patterns established over the last five years. It's trying to apply a more methodical approach to staffing.

The community has clearly voiced its preference for foot beats and bicycle patrols. Is that something you wish to keep as a key element in the East Precinct?

It is one of my priorities. Captain Black initiated the bike patrol as a separate squad. My goal is to get a full-time bike squad going. They are very good at community outreach and in some cases they're easier to maneuver and move around. So I want to emphasize the bike squad. The downside is that I still need to be able to staff patrol cars and calls for service. Right now I'm using existing resources, which means I can't staff a bike unit full time. When staffing levels get up, there will be hopefully a fully dedicated bicycle squad.

What kind of level is it at right now?

Today we're at 50 percent. I pull people from other duties to handle the bike squad.

We need the new officers to finish training, that's true throughout the entire city. And we need to get the new officers hired and trained.

You probably can't answer this question any other way, but do you have enough officers to do the job?

I can always put more officers to work. But yes, we can do the job.

How many more officers do you need to be at an optimal but realistic level?

I can't really put a hard number on it. As calls go up in the summer, I'll probably need more. Precinct staffing is determined by the chief, and department staffing is determined by the mayor and city council. I think when we get the 105 officers, we'll be at a level of enforcement that is reasonable for the city and yet still doesn't come across as every time you turn around on the street you see a policeman.

I think we have a good condition now. Our reputation is strong. In a recent survey, 85 to 90 percent think we're doing a good or very good job. That's tremendous for a large metropolitan area.

We do need the officers to get the job done, I will say that right now. But I'd like to see those officers in place before I think about how many more are needed.

How does the officer makeup at the precinct breakdown? Is there a good sense of historical continuity with the people who work here?

I think we have about a 50/50 split of new and well-established officers here. And that's a good thing. There are a lot of new officers here who are learning from those who have been here a long time. One senior officer has been working for 28 years. He still goes out on the street every day, and that's a major win.

Having the mix is valuable as long as everyone involved remains professional.

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