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The Leadership Beat: ‘A cornerstone of my leadership has been a commitment to maximum transparency’

Chief Erik Scairpon explores the pivotal role of mentorship, community engagement, and proactive leadership development in modern policing

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Marysville Police Department Chief Erik Scairpon is pictured far right during a swearing-in ceremony for new corporals and lateral transfers.

Photo/Marysville Police Department

The following content is part of Police1’s Police Leader Playbook, a resource 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 to offer your insights for the Police Leader Playbook.

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Chief Erik Scairpon

Chief Erik Scairpon began serving as the Chief of Police for the Marysville Police Department (MPD) in 2020. Nestled close to the foothills of the North Cascades mountains in beautiful Washington State, MPD consists of 80 commission police officers, 25 custody officers, and about 27 professional staff that supports a city population of over 73,000 and runs a municipal 92-bed jail.

Located on I-5, north of Seattle and directly adjacent to the Tulalip Indian reservation, the Marysville Police Department saw over 71,000 calls for service in 2023. The agency enjoys strong support from the community, our city council and city leadership – and is hiring!

What was the incident or person in your career that put you on the path to becoming a chief?

One of the former police chiefs I worked under, Ron Gibson, joined the Redmond Police Department as a deputy chief from Colorado Springs. Chief Gibson appointed me, then a 33-year-old police commander, to oversee recruiting, hiring and professional standards. This role afforded me weekly meetings and considerable mentorship from him. During one of our Monday morning meetings, he presented a job flyer for a local chief position, sliding it across to me and asking, “So, are you applying for this?” My laughter was a response to my perceived lack of qualifications, to which he replied with a chuckle, “Well, you will be ready someday, so you better prepare. Here’s what I need you to work on to eventually secure that position.”

Through deliberate and thoughtful mentorship, Chief Gibson played a pivotal role in shaping me into the police chief I am today. He motivated me to join the board of a local nonprofit organization of my choosing. I opted for a victim service agency, where I rose to the position of board president and now serve as an advisory board member. Leading a team of volunteers in such an organization proved to be an incredibly humbling experience that refined my leadership skills, preparing me for a chief’s responsibilities. This experience has been a crucial part of my executive training, directly benefiting my current role as police chief. Embracing this tradition, I now focus on nurturing my command staff, equipping them to become potential leaders within our department or to make significant contributions to the profession elsewhere.

Whenever we, as leaders, have the chance to promote the advancement and development of others, it’s imperative that we seize these opportunities for the enhancement of our agency and the progression of our profession. By ensuring that the individuals under our guidance have a thorough understanding of our roles, we enable them to perform their duties more effectively.

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Photo/Marysville Police Department

What do you (or did you) want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first 30 days as chief, 6 months as chief and year as chief?

I assumed the role of police chief during the pandemic in September 2020, a period marked by unprecedented challenges. Despite having honed a successful leadership approach at my previous agency, adapting to the new role required swiftly familiarizing myself with key community stakeholders, as well as the intricacies of the department and municipal operations. The task of forging connections during this time proved to be particularly difficult, leading to delays in certain areas. Additionally, I inherited a department grappling with significant issues in accountability, alongside deficiencies in our disciplinary and timekeeping systems, underscored by a failed audit from the state auditor’s office. In such situations, the only way forward is up, though the journey is fraught with obstacles.

To steer the department toward necessary change, I prioritized identifying stakeholders within the department who were ready to commit to our goals and support our change management efforts. One of my initial actions was to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the department’s current state, identifying areas requiring immediate improvement and strategizing on the implementation of these changes. This assessment was completed within the first 90 days of my tenure, facilitated by personal meetings with every member of my department. Such an approach addresses a common complaint I’ve observed in other agencies, where personnel feel undervalued due to a lack of direct engagement with new leadership. By ensuring open communication from the start, an executive leader can easily circumvent this issue, fostering a culture of inclusivity and respect.

By attentively listening to the feedback from all staff members, identifying recurring themes, and leveraging my leadership skills, knowledge, and experience, I was able to pinpoint the necessary changes. The process of conducting interviews with the staff was instrumental in shaping the strategic direction of the department, proving to be a crucial step in guiding us towards our current position.

Between 2020 and 2022, Washington state underwent significant transformations with the implementation of numerous police reforms, making it one of the most stringent states for law enforcement practice. Upon assuming my role as Police Chief, I initially resolved to steer clear of legislative politics during my first year to solidify my foundation. However, this plan quickly became impractical due to the extensive changes affecting law enforcement in Washington and the pressing need for advocacy and education among state lawmakers to develop more effective public safety policies.

I pivoted quickly, engaging directly at the state level through our Chiefs and Sheriffs Association and collaborating with the legislative team. I also worked closely with local legislators to clarify the negative consequences and impacts of certain legislations they had passed. This concerted effort bore fruit in 2022 when we successfully addressed some of the most critical challenges within public safety policy. This achievement led to a more stable environment for our profession and significantly curtailed the previously rampant issues of retirements, resignations, and high turnover rates.

As we move into 2024, our agency and the state are still navigating the path to recovery, focusing on rehiring and retraining staff following the turnover experienced over the last four years. A cornerstone of my leadership during this period has been a commitment to maximum transparency. Although matters of personnel and discipline sometimes necessitate confidentiality, I have been open about all other changes, always explaining the reasons behind decisions. I’ve kept our staff informed about my advocacy efforts at the state level through weekly email updates to not just our department, but also the City Council, our Police Foundation, and all City department directors. This approach ensured that no one was taken by surprise by any change, operational adjustment, or new policy initiative. While the frequency of these updates has decreased due to a reduction in the pace of change, this practice of transparency continues to play a vital role in keeping all stakeholders informed about the agency’s status and direction.

How are you creating an organizational culture that people want to be a part of?

Fostering an exceptional organizational culture begins with establishing trust at the foundational level among your department’s leadership team, including both supervisors and command staff, as well as the senior leadership. Trust is the cornerstone of any strong relationship and is essential for a thriving culture. However, trust is fragile; it can be compromised quickly and often requires considerable time and effort to restore. By maintaining transparency with both employees and the community, a leadership team can cultivate a deeper sense of trust. This foundation enables forgiveness when mistakes are made. Admitting errors and sincerely apologizing can significantly reinforce trust. Witnessing the surprise and appreciation on people’s faces when I acknowledge a mistake underscores the power of vulnerability and honesty in building trust.

Following the establishment of trust, the next step is to create a positive work environment, a task that presents considerable challenges, especially in law enforcement. Police officers are routinely exposed to the darker elements of society, encountering situations that often involve the worst behaviors and may require the use of force to ensure their safety and the safety of the community. Despite these difficulties, fostering a workplace that promotes positivity is crucial for maintaining morale and effectiveness among officers.

Cultivating a positive work environment begins with expressing gratitude: gratitude toward staff members, the community, and for all the efforts made on behalf of the Police Department.

One initiative I’ve implemented in my weekly communications is the “Thanks of the Week,” where I take the opportunity to acknowledge someone within the department, a community member, a partner organization, or anyone else deserving recognition for their exemplary efforts. These acknowledgments can highlight significant contributions like donations to our canine fund, impactful initiatives by the police foundation, or actions that enhance employee wellness and, by extension, the department as a whole.

Emphasizing gratitude provides a counterbalance to the daily challenges and negativity we face, offering perspective and reminding us of the positive aspects of our work and community. While frustrations and complaints are a natural part of any job, focusing on the positive can illuminate the good around us, enhancing the work environment for everyone.

Once you start consistently acknowledging the positives, a remarkable shift occurs — not in a naively optimistic way, but with a grounded sense of optimism balanced with realism. This type of recognition encourages everyone to notice and appreciate the positive aspects and achievements within the agency. It naturally begins to counteract the pervasive negativity that often surrounds the profession. By emphasizing the successes and the positive contributions, it’s possible to shift the collective focus away from negativity, fostering a more positive and supportive work environment.

Once positivity becomes ingrained in your culture, reinforcing this atmosphere with new hires becomes seamless. Long-standing employees, who have desired such a workplace, will appreciate and help maintain this environment. This positive culture facilitates easier and more appealing recruitment. Our department exemplifies this, with 70 candidates vying for just five entry-level positions, a testament to the attractive workplace we’ve created. Moreover, fostering a positive culture has also enhanced our ability to recruit more female employees, thereby strengthening our team with community leaders who are not only exceptional in their roles but also contribute to a more diverse and dynamic workforce.

In our recruiting efforts, we make it a point to connect candidates with someone they can relate to and view as a role model. This approach has contributed to a significant increase in diversity within our ranks, with females now comprising over 26% of our patrol division and similarly high representation in our custody division. This achievement is particularly noteworthy given that we haven’t relied on a formal strategy to reach these numbers. Our goal has always been to recruit the best officers, and it turns out many of them are women. This success underscores our commitment to diversity and excellence, demonstrating that inclusivity naturally follows when the focus is on quality and merit.

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Photo/Marysville Police Department

What’s your process for making major decisions?

Major decisions, especially those extending beyond the scope of routine mission-oriented operations, demand meticulous planning and careful deliberation. Adopting change management processes can facilitate enduring organizational transformation. As chief, I regularly receive pitches from vendors offering training, equipment, and various services that may or may not align with our needs. While I might have a vision for how a particular tool or training could benefit our organization, I place significant trust in the expertise of my senior command, staff, and subject matter experts to guide our decisions on necessary resources. I commit to investing in a comprehensive system, tool, or significant training program only after it has been thoroughly evaluated and recommended by our team, ensuring that our decisions are informed by the collective insight and needs of our department.

A prime instance of this approach in action was the legislative mandate in Washington State requiring active bystander training for law enforcement. I set clear objectives for our training team, emphasizing the need for a program that was sustainable, easily implementable, widely accepted within the industry, and capable of being deployed swiftly to comply with the legislative timeline. The goal was to find a solution that would positively impact morale and fulfill the training requisites.

After providing initial guidance, I empowered the team to explore options within these parameters. The outcome was their unanimous recommendation for the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program offered by Georgetown University. Thanks to their thorough evaluation and the collective endorsement of trainers across various ranks, we were able to roll out this training effectively within our agency last year, leading to the certification of every member of our commissioned police force. This success underscores the importance of leadership that prioritizes influence over authority and the value of collaborative decision-making. By exemplifying and nurturing this style of leadership, we aim to prepare the next generation of law enforcement leaders to lead with influence, fostering a culture of proactive and positive change.

Confronting complex personnel issues or significant challenges often necessitates a collective effort, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and collaborative problem-solving. Involving a broader group in the decision-making process, especially for tasks such as budgeting and addressing resource constraints, can lead to more innovative and effective solutions. An illustrative example of this approach occurred during a period of significant turnover and upheaval within our department, exacerbated by extensive reforms in Washington State’s law enforcement practices.

Faced with 22 vacancies at a critical juncture, we engaged department members in a comprehensive brainstorming session to determine how we could continue fulfilling our essential duty of responding to 911 calls with limited staffing. The consensus led to the difficult decision to disband specialized units temporarily, reallocating all available personnel to patrol duties to maintain our core service commitment. This strategy underscored the value of collective input and adaptability in navigating the challenges presented by external changes and internal resource limitations.

When our decision to focus solely on patrol response was publicly questioned by department members, we opened the floor for them to review the available resources and propose alternative solutions. This approach acknowledged the possibility that we might not have arrived at the best solution and showed a willingness to consider other viable strategies if presented. By empowering our line staff to engage in the same level of analysis and problem-solving that the leadership team had undertaken, they ultimately arrived at the same conclusions we did.

This process of inclusive decision-making and validation of the challenges we faced made the tough decision more palatable for everyone involved. It demonstrated the effectiveness of collaborative problem-solving and the value of involving various perspectives in the decision-making process, ultimately facilitating a greater acceptance and understanding of the necessary measures.

Last word of advice: avoid making a difficult decision on a Friday; marinating on it over the weekend typically allows you to come back more rested enabling you to view the situation with fresh eyes on a Monday. No good decision is ever made at 3 p.m. on a Friday.

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“In our recruiting efforts, we make it a point to connect candidates with someone they can relate to and view as a role model.”

Photo/Marysville Police Department

How do you show your personnel that you are leading with value-based behaviors?

Authentic leadership is foundational to effective management and positive organizational culture. Being an authentic leader involves acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, openly admitting mistakes, and, most importantly, actively listening to and valuing the perspectives of every team member.

My aspiration to become a police chief was driven by witnessing ineffective leadership throughout my career. This experience instilled in me a commitment to genuinely listen to my team, ensuring I don’t replicate the errors I’ve observed. While I don’t claim perfection, I believe that leading with authenticity, transparency about my thoughts and actions, and a sincere representation of my team’s interests, both within the organization and to the outside world, significantly contributes to building trust and respect.

When you lead in this manner, it shows your employees that you genuinely do care. Then, when you inevitably make a mistake, the people you are responsible for are more apt to forgive your errors.

Value-based leadership centers on making the right decisions at the right time for the right reasons, embodying character, credibility, and commitment. These principles, consistently demonstrated across all levels of leadership within an organization, lay the groundwork for both immediate and long-term success. Part of this leadership involves holding team members accountable in a manner that is transparent across both line and supervisory roles.

When addressing issues of discipline or misconduct, it’s crucial to examine whether these incidents stem from failures in leadership, not to place blame but to understand how to prevent similar issues in the future. This introspective approach ensures that behavior not in alignment with the organization’s values is not inadvertently encouraged and is addressed more promptly moving forward.

Ultimately, everyone is watching what a chief or a sheriff does with disciplinary issues. Are you consistent? Are you fair? Are you firm? Do the decisions that you make sense in the eyes of the organization? While details of disciplinary actions may need to remain confidential to protect the integrity of the investigations and the privacy of those involved, it’s possible to discuss these matters in general terms. This approach helps maintain trust, ensures lessons are learned organization-wide, and contributes to a culture where misconduct is less likely to occur.

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“Our goal has always been to recruit the best officers, and it turns out many of them are women.”

Photo/Marysville Police Department

Leadership lightning round

What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable?

Before becoming a police chief, I read David Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around.” This book provided me with a leadership platform on how to take the helm of a 130-person police department and keep my bosses informed as to what I intended to do, as well as instruct my command staff in the style of ethical–dispersed leadership that I was seeking from them. All while speeding up our change in the organization and improving our professionalism and standing with the community.

How do you organize your day and stay on schedule?

Everything gets scheduled on Outlook. This includes lunches, personal commitments, after-hours commitments, travel time and desk time. If it doesn’t get on the schedule, then it won’t happen.

If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?

At a minimum, we need 10 to 15 new police officers to meet the needs of our growing community, which is projected to be 100,000 people by 2044. Unfortunately, Washington State ranks last in the nation for per capita police officer staffing, but Marysville PD is hiring!

What is one way leaders can show they care about their people?

Show you care by showing up, knowing your people’s names, recognizing them for good work, and stopping in amongst your busy schedule to touch in and ask people what they’re working on and what’s going on.

At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?

One of the things I have loved doing over the past couple of years is coaching my son’s Little League team. My mayor has supported me in doing this, and when I’m out on the baseball diamond, I am not thinking about policing.