Law Enforcement Veteran Offers New Perspective on Policing

Chief deputy in sheriff’s office explains how real-world consequences changed his thinking about crime and punishment

Police reform

This ongoing, occasional series features interviews with a variety of influential leaders who discuss how they became involved in criminal justice reform, how their views have evolved—sometimes in unexpected ways—and what’s needed to sustain progress.

Jim Pugel is chief deputy at the King County Sheriff’s Office in Seattle. He was previously the interim chief of police at the Seattle Police Department. He is a member of the Vera Institute of Justice’s advisory board for the Justice Reform for Healthy Communities initiative and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Executive Session on Community Corrections.

Q: How would you describe your position on prison and criminal justice in the past?

A: I started out as a volunteer reserve officer with the Seattle Police Department in 1981 and was hired full time in 1983, and like all cops back then, I was taught to catch the bad guys and put them in jail and then go out and do it all over again. There was very little problem-solving and not much attention focused on the root causes of crime or on what we as police officers could do aside from make arrests. Preventing crime was just a matter of taking people who were doing bad things and putting them in jail.

Q: How did you arrive at that position?

A: Early on, I didn’t do a lot of reflection about our profession, as I do now. Back then our feeling as officers was, “The law is black and white, and if it’s violated, then you go to jail.” It was how we were taught as officers, and we performed as we were taught. And, of course, that was reinforced not only in the field by supervisors but also by the courts, prosecutors, judges, and everyone else. Beyond that, all the elected leaders—whether it was Ronald Reagan, George [H.W.] Bush, or Bill Clinton—all signed hard-on-crime laws that further validated what we were doing.

Q: What were your early views on the impact of prison on crime?

A: I’d say my view went along with the dominant anecdotal belief that the incapacitation of large numbers of people brought down the crime rate. Since then, I think we’ve realized that while widespread incarceration may have been a small part of it, crime reduction was also driven by many other factors.

And what we didn’t anticipate was the harmful—the terrible—effects that mass incarceration of primarily African-American men would have on the neighborhoods where they were arrested. Certainly, many of these men were doing harmful things to their neighborhoods, but by removing such huge numbers of people who had committed low-level, nonviolent offenses and not helping the families and children left behind, we caused tremendous damage to communities. Despite their criminal offenses, many of those men were responsible members of their communities and stewards of their families.

Q: How would you describe your position on prison and criminal justice today?

A: We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world, and for some reason we tend to want to over-punish without actually correcting behavior, at least until recently. Look at how we’ve treated people who have completed their sentences. Many have been denied access to public housing or barred from working certain jobs or stripped of their right to vote. Basically, the punishment continues forever, which is not what punishment is supposed to be. Punishment is supposed to be discipline but also correction, and it should include helping offenders—as well as victims—rebuild their lives. For years, that didn’t happen. Instead, we’ve practiced what some people call popular punitivism, which essentially reflects a mob mentality of wanting to hang someone for their crimes rather than choosing an approach that changes their behavior.

Now let me be clear: There are some people out there who have done some very, very bad things and need to be incapacitated. But those are the predators, the ones who cause grievous physical harm such as rape, murder, armed robbery, or arson. Everyone else? Let’s practice parsimony. Let’s do the least amount of punishment that we can and try to increase the potential success for the individual and reduce the harm inflicted on those left behind in communities.

Q: What experiences caused you to change your position on criminal justice?

A: Part of it was seeing the negative effects that over-incarceration was having on children and on the economic well-being of communities, especially communities of color. I was also doing a lot of reading, looking at research, and I learned that when it comes to punishment, the United States is far different from other countries. We are far more punitive, and our system ignores a lot of strong evidence on criminal behavior and how to change it. We have people in their 60s serving time for crimes they committed in their 20s when their brains weren’t fully developed. This is not what happens in Europe, where they recognize that people age out of crime, and the sentences reflect that.

I also realized that, when it came to policing, we were doing the same things over and over and getting the same disappointing results. In the ’90s, various forms of community- or problem-oriented policing started to evolve. But while there were a lot of good intentions and good attempts, when it came down to it, if there was a problem or things got hard, elected officials in the community would say, ‘Go arrest your way out of the problem. Make these bad things go away.’ So the pattern continued.

Q: How has your evolution on criminal justice influenced your career?

A: The Seattle Police Department was sued over racial bias in its practices against African-American men around 2000, and the litigation went on and on. But finally, after years of getting nowhere, we started talking in a very collaborative way with the defense bar, the American Civil Liberties Union, another group called the Racial Disparity Project, and also prosecutors and elected officials. The goal was to figure out what to do about Seattle’s open-air drug markets, and we decided to start a new approach in 2011.

That was the beginning of LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which essentially takes low-level drug offenders and provides them treatment and other support services instead of sending them to jail. At that time, I was an assistant chief with the police department, then I became the chief of police for about a year, and I was very involved in getting LEAD off the ground. Then when I came over to the King County Sheriff’s Office in 2014, the sheriff asked me to start a LEAD initiative here.

Q: Have you encountered any interesting reactions to the change in your views?

A: Absolutely. There are people who think what we’re doing with LEAD is soft on crime. We were all taught in the police academy in the ’80s and ’90s that we were fighting the “war on drugs” and that eventually we’d win the war. And so people saw me doing this different strategy and they said, “Pugel, you’re giving up, throwing down your sword, helping the enemy.” But when you get a rational discussion going and it becomes clear that we’ve been doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and it just hasn’t happened, then people can see that’s the definition of insanity.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: We’re on a good path in Seattle and King County. We’ve been doing LEAD in the city for five years and in the county for a year, and the results are positive. The numbers on recidivism reduction are amazing—up to 60 percent of participants were less likely to reoffend than members of a control group—and the results in terms of cost-effectiveness are very promising.

This is a continual conversation, and we’re continually self-correcting. Our effort goes all the way down to whom we recruit. We need people who are problem-solvers, who are able to work collaboratively in a system that is changing. There are a lot of challenges, but I’m optimistic.

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