The Leadership Beat: ‘The community must remain the focus of our efforts’
Chief Sean Washington details how his agency seeks to serve by hearing the perspectives of both their personnel and their community
The following content is part of a new Police1 initiative – the Police Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new law enforcement leaders move beyond basic management and supervision skills and become inspirational leaders with integrity and passion. Through a handful of questions presented by Police1, veteran leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to offer your insights for the Police Leader Playbook.
Chief Sean Washington became chief of the Fremont (California) Police Department in October 2021. As of 2019, the department consisted of over 300 staff, of which more than 200 are sworn personnel, and more than 100 are professional staff, serving the fourth largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow the Fremont Police Department on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.
What put you on the path to becoming a chief?
Two people, in particular, influenced me to begin a career in law enforcement.
The first is my father, who served in Southern California law enforcement for over 30 years. His level of professionalism, integrity and dedicated service set the foundation and brought me clarity on the purpose of police officers.
The second person who put me on the path toward becoming an officer is a now retired chief of a local police agency.
My father laid the foundation, and the chief was my mentor and trusted advisor. His values and understanding of complex social, political and personal matters guided my preparation and knowledge of the role.
I cannot forget the people I serve as well. Understanding the impact of crime motivated me to hear and respond to our community’s concerns and continues to motivate me to do all I reasonably can to help.
What do you (or did you) want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first few months as chief?
The past four years have been challenging times for law enforcement. Dealing with a worldwide pandemic, intense calls for police reform, increased stress, officer wellness needs and our nation’s divisive posture have contributed to ongoing challenges.
As a new chief, my focus was to hear the perspectives of our staff and our community. As a result, I focus on matters that are within my control and help others power through issues that are beyond our control.
I wanted to reaffirm our purpose as law enforcement professionals and keep my teams motivated and focused on serving, which required a tremendous amount of communication with our community, city leadership and staff and is ongoing to this day. Information obtained during these meetings helps me to develop plans, bring forward initiatives and plan for future change.
How are you creating an organizational culture people want to be a part of?
Our organization’s culture is founded on the principles of procedural justice (voice, fairness, impartiality and transparency). These principles are woven into everything we do internally and externally in our community, including open, transparent and honest actions and communication, even when faced with information that is unpopular or not widely understood.
I believe doing what is right and demonstrating the commitment to these core principles are key to retaining current members of the department and attracting others to join the Fremont Police Department.
In addition, an unwavering focus on investing in our staff with wellness, training, equipment and professional development must not only be communicated but also demonstrated in how we allocate our budget.
What’s your process for making major decisions?
Major decisions are easy to make when the interests of our community, our city/department and our employees all align. The challenge is making a decision that diverges from the interest of some of the stakeholders.
The community must remain the focus of our efforts. My role is to try to come to a decision that is acceptable to all stakeholders, but if that cannot occur, we must ensure the community is served first. This approach requires constant communication with all stakeholders to ensure their voices are heard as well as ensuring we are consistent with procedural justice principles. Hearing and listening are not just an exercise – they are critical when making major decisions.
I have learned to concede a particular topic when I disagree and when it will not cause any harm to our community, department, or staff. I also utilize my trusted advisors (command team, union leaders and community) to help guide decisions.
How do you show your personnel that you are leading with value-based behaviors?
My executive team and I constantly demonstrate how much we value our people through our words and actions. We have made it clear that unfair, untrue assumptions regarding our actions will be defended, and we also communicate that if a member of our staff makes a mistake, we will hold them accountable and deal with it appropriately. My command team and I constantly communicate this to our staff and our community and are transparent in our actions (unless a topic is confidential).
Being responsive to your staff’s concerns is also important. We all understand that every idea, suggestion, or ask cannot be accommodated. However, the key is communicating the “why” and responding thoughtfully. Your teams may not like the decision, but they can’t argue against the logic and reasonableness of a decision.
As a chief, it is sometimes difficult to know every issue that every member of your department is experiencing. Ups and downs are inevitable, but when you can, make an effort to acknowledge them in good times and support them during professional or personal adversity. A family environment requires a chief who cares about everyone, even if a mistake is made. In other words, you can discipline someone and still show them you care about their wellbeing.
Leadership Lightning Round
What is a leadership book, podcast, or seminar you’ve found invaluable?
As a captain, I attended a leadership series through the California Police Chief’s Association (CPCA) intended to prepare individuals wanting to join the executive leadership team or become a police chief by learning from peers, chiefs and city managers throughout the state. I also attended the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Command College, which challenged me and other future leaders to think differently about law enforcement and develop anticipatory skills to identify issues that are on the horizon for our profession.
How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?
After recently realizing there are only 24 hours in a day to get everything done for our community, department and staff, I utilize a combination of a very skilled executive assistant, delegation and prioritization to determine my schedule and stay on task.
If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?
Realizing healthy employees are key to providing high-level professional service, I would fund a wellness and training center for our staff, which would include classrooms, individual relaxation/recovery (restorative rest areas), a private area for mental health check-ins, a chef to prepare healthy meals and a study/training area.
What is one way that leaders can show they care about their people?
Investing in your people is key and should be affirmed in how we budget, train our staff, acquire equipment, and align our policies and procedures with best practices setting our teams up for success.
At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?
Spending time with family and friends, along with taking advantage of a long commute, allows me time to transition from Chief Washington to dad, husband, son, uncle and friend.