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Without a permanent chief and in the face of internal strife, UWPD’s future remains unclear

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After the release of an unflattering independent review and the stepping-down of former Chief John Vinson, the University of Washington Police Department’s (UWPD) future is up in the air.

The independent review of UWPD, launched last September and made public on Friday, unearthed a culture of distrust, fear, and retaliation between officers and executive leadership. Specifically, the review found that Vinson’s leadership, or at least officers’ “perception” of his leadership, “has had a chilling impact on the willingness of employees to openly participate in decision-making, created a fear of retaliation among many, and likely deprived decisions of critical information from people close to the issue or problem.”

Overall, the report concluded that the “dispirited internal climate of the department is striking.”

Vinson, who will now serve exclusively as the assistant vice president for campus and community safety within UW Student Life, said in an email to The Daily that “whenever there is an extended review of a department that has gone through significant organizational culture change, there will be a variety of perspectives regarding the successes of the department and opportunities for improvements.”

“I have performed my job to the best of my abilities, addressing and managing a variety of challenges along the way,” Vinson added. “While chief at the University of Washington Police Department, the safety and well-being of the institution's faculty, staff, students, and visitors was at the forefront of every decision I made.”

Vinson held his position in UW Student Life simultaneously during his tenure as the head of UWPD, an organization with 81 full-time employees. According to Vice President of Student Affairs Denzil Suite, Vinson’s salary will remain unchanged, and will be allocated from Student Life funds. UWPD’s replacement chief will be paid from UWPD funds.

From the beginning of his 10-year tenure, the review shows that Vinson, who was previously the second in command at the Isabella County Sheriff’s Department in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, was saddled with suspicion from inside the department. Some staff members thought he was the second choice to an internal candidate who was passed over.

Those staffers “felt threatened by a Chief who did not rise up through the UWPD ranks and who decided to bring in others from the outside,” according to the review.

Some UWPD employees discovered details from a 1994 incident involving Vinson in which he was investigated but charges were not pursued. The UW appeared to be aware of these charges at the time of his hiring in 2009 and were not deterred by them.

The review says that Vinson faced claims of race and gender bias and other issues of employee relations throughout his time at the UWPD.

That being said, some individuals spoken to for the review, which included interviews with 68 current and former UWPD employees, noted his work moving the department forward, calling him a “visionary,” a “change agent,” and “driven on vision, mission, and task.” Some interviewees commended his work raising salaries for commissioned employees and bringing more racial and gender diversity to the organization.

That wasn’t enough for many employees though, as the review cites a survey that found 74% want to see major change in the department and only 19% feel executive leadership treats employees with respect.

The long-anticipated review puts pressure on the UW administration to find a replacement chief who can address these issues and implement recommendations made by Change Integration Consulting, the agency responsible for the review.

The review made several recommendations for new UWPD leadership, including fostering a more “stable organizational culture.” According to the review, frequent changes in assignment and structure resulted in dysfunctional communication within the department.

While 93% of UWPD patrol officers and 83% of officers with non-patrol responsibilities indicated they have a good relationship with their supervisors, and 68% of all respondents agreed the supervisory relationship is good, just 12% agreed there was good communication within the department, according to the report.

The review also recommended that the next chief should focus on team-building and implement tools to gather officer input.

According to Suite, a “search committee will engage in listening sessions before inviting [chief of police] candidates to campus.”

Currently, interim Chief of Police Randy West has taken over, although how he was unable to address questions regarding his leadership, as he is out of town for most of this month, according to his secretary.

Suite also said that UWPD and the broader community will be able to provide input in regard to the new chief.

“It is a bit premature to determine exactly what we are looking for in the next leader before we hear from the officers and other members of the campus,” Suite said in an email.

Reach reporter Claudia Yaw and reporter Jake Goldstein-Street at Twitter: @yawclaudia and @GoldsteinStreet

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