Grading Mark

After a turbulent start, how does Chief Kroeker measure up?


Sidebars:
Kroeker by the Numbers
THE LURE OF L.A. (AND KABUL)

 

Before strapping on a holster, Mark Kroeker picked up a trumpet and studied music at a California Bible college--until, that is, he got expelled his sophomore year.

"My grades were deplorable and my conduct irresponsible, and I got a letter that said, 'Go away,'" recalls Portland's police chief, with an aw-shucks smile. "It was like that scene in Star Wars where the guy at the bar says, 'We don't like you here.'"

A year ago, many Portlanders felt the same way. A series of missteps--notably the surfacing of decade-old, taped anti-gay statements in November 2000--had some folks at City Hall wondering not if Kroeker would be fired, but when. As city Commissioner Dan Saltzman recalls, "It could have gone either way."

So when the Kroekster's two-year anniversary passed almost unnoticed on Dec. 19, the former Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief didn't complain too much. No cake--but no demonstrators calling for his head, either. Like a skin graft that could have been rejected by its host, the imported chief seemed to have finally taken hold.

But while Portland has grown accustomed to his big ears, warm smile, lanky frame and receding sandy hair, just what is it we've got here? The answer is not obvious. "Nice guy, very personable, but beyond that it gets a little hazy," says City Commissioner Charlie Hales. Chuck Duffy, former police liaison to Bud Clark, has watched a parade of chiefs come and go. Kroeker, he says, "is an enigma to me."

Some clues to deciphering Mark Kroeker, as well as his Houdini-like escape from another expulsion, follow in WW's two-year report card on the chief.

 

Rookie mistakes undermined Kroeker's longstanding lust to lead.

D+

MAKING A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION
"Sometimes your behavior can be disruptive, Mark."


After getting kicked out of Biola University, Kroeker changed his slacker ways and signed up for the Los Angeles Police Department. One day, a beer-buzzed buddy said, "We really need people like you in leadership"-- and a light flashed on in Kroeker's brain.

He's been applying for promotions ever since, while mastering a fearsome array of inspirational quotes that he drops into his talks like some people pop Altoids. His current favorite: "It's a good horse that kicks up a lot of dust."

Kroeker spent much of the 1990s looking up, a deputy chief who unsuccessfully applied for the top job twice in Los Angeles and once in San Diego. In 1997, frustrated with his stalled police career, he served a year as second-in-command of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

Upon his return, he yearned to lead so badly that he tried to help elect a dead guy. When L.A. Sheriff Sherman Block died a week before his 1998 reelection bid, the popular Kroeker used the media to let voters know that he was willing and likely to be appointed if the deceased won. Unfortunately for Kroeker, Los Angelenos chose the other guy, Lee Baca.

In December 1999, Kroeker finally got his chief's post, though he had to cross the state line to get it. He arrive in Portland vowing to employ a "singularity of leadership" and behaving like, well, an energetic horse--one that was feeling its oats.

In April 2000, just 14 weeks on the job, he imposed mandatory haircuts for cops, which critics blasted as LAPD-style militarism. On May 1, those fears spread to traditional cop supporters, when the media documented a stormtrooper-style crackdown on a mostly peaceful protest. The chief's initial response? Portland should get "accustomed" to it. In November he was again in the headlines after the Portland Alliance revealed decade-old tapes of Kroeker saying, among other things, that homosexuality was a "perversion" and should be outlawed. His subsequent semantic tap dancing only made things worse.

The chief's defenders say the first-year furor was inflated by longtime cop critics for whom Kroeker's 32-year LAPD résumé was an invitation to attack. "I didn't think they'd go for the throat that quickly," says police chaplain John Elms.

Still, Kroeker didn't do much to extend his honeymoon.

"By any measurement, Kroeker has had a lot of issues," says Duffy, the former Clark aide, "and a lot of them were self-inflicted."

 

Kroeker started listening in Portland, helping him dodge a pink slip from City Hall.

B+

SCHMOOZING CITY HALL
"Good work, Mark--keep it up!"

In the end, Kroeker chugged through flap after flap like a Teflon Energizer Bunny, emerging at the end of his sophomore year with the support not only of his boss, Mayor Vera Katz, but a majority of the City Council. His secret? Learning the political landscape, as well as repressing his personal feelings and natural instincts in order to survive. "The last two years," he says, "have been unbelievably interesting."

In the wake of May Day 2000, under pressure from the council and the public, Kroeker dramatically changed the bureau's tactics for dealing with protesters. Of all his achievements, cop observers give Kroeker the most credit for this one, as it took courage to admit the bureau's mistakes and implement changes that were unpopular with officers--and flew in the face of prevailing law-enforcement wisdom. Best of all, it worked, reversing a trend of visibly escalating hostility between protesters and cops.

Later, following the tapes flap, Kroeker patiently endured repeated verbal floggings at public meetings and, in a PR master stroke, even attended the well-publicized birthday party of drag queen Darcelle, helping restore relations with Portland's "alternative lifestyle" practitioners.

He then softened his initial resistance to civilian review of police misconduct and didn't object when the City Council voted to appropriate the chief's final authority over disciplinary findings.

Most recently, in November, Kroeker went against what he concedes was his natural instinct to cooperate with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's anti-terror dragnet, instead taking to the national airwaves to absorb the flak for a decision he did not make (see "Ripped City," WW, Dec. 5, 2001).

In short, after a rocky start, Kroeker has become a team player at City Hall, and the folks who sign his paycheck have noticed.

"He has shown an amazing ability to divorce his personal views from the execution of his duties," says city Commissioner Erik Sten. "I think he's pulled off the job successfully."

"He's sensitive to the issues that are out there, and he tries to respond," says Commissioner Jim Francesconi. "I actually think the guy listens."

"I can't think of a single area of deficiency," says Saltzman. "I really think he's turning out to be a great chief."

"I'm very happy that I hired him," says Katz, the police commissioner.

Clearly, Kroeker's willingness to play ball helped save his job. But the political side has a broader importance, which is why former Portland police commander Rick Rictor thinks this is the most important criterion when judging a chief: "If the City Council believes in what you're doing," he says, "they'll give you the resources you need."

Today, with the city facing a $14 million shortfall, Kroeker appears ready to test the council's goodwill by flexing his newfound political muscle in a way he hasn't before. His message to City Hall:

"You have said that you want people to be safe. You can't say that is a priority and cut bureaus all the same, especially after Sept. 11," he told WW. "It becomes difficult to lead in an organization that is hemorrhaging under your hands."

C-

PLEASING THE TROOPS
"Mark, is this the best you can do?"
Even Kroeker's defenders acknowledge that morale today has sunk lower than under his predecessor.

If you want to change an organization's culture, it helps to have the buy-in of the rank and file. In Los Angeles, Kroeker enjoyed cultlike devotion. "The guys would lay their lives down for him," says former LAPD union head Dennis Zine.

In Portland, however, the opposite is true: Morale is bad. Many people, including Rictor, say this is just the nature of police departments: Someone will always be unhappy. But others--even some Kroeker defenders--say the current mood in Portland's precincts is even worse than under Kroeker's predecessor, Charles Moose, who eventually lost the trust of even his managers thanks to his mercurial and temperamental ways.

"Someone once said to me, 'Morale is always bad,' but I think there have been times when it was good," says Duffy, the former police liaison. "And I think there have been a lot of times in the past when it was better than it is now."

Officer Tom Mack agrees. "People were unhappy under Moose," says the former police-union official, "but nowhere to this degree."

Kroeker's biggest problem? He fired three officers in his first four months but wound up having to reinstate two of them in the grievance process--one at the orders of an arbitrator, the other because the union was about to mop the floor with Kroeker's epaulets. Officers felt the chief was playing to the public at their expense. In his second year, Kroeker has been much more consistent, but cops are slow to forgive. Says Katz, "He's struggled with discipline."

In addition, many cops think Kroeker is too quick to appease the City Council. In November, many line officers were infuriated by Katz's decision not to participate in Ashcroft's dragnet. Whereas Moose would happily tell City Hall where to stick it, Kroeker says he and Katz have agreed not to argue in public.

It's probably a smart move, but it doesn't play well at roll calls. Loren Christensen, editor of the police union newspaper, says that even non-complainers have lately told him that "it's gotten so bad, we wish we had Moose back."

In recent months, Kroeker has made efforts to improve the relationship. In October, fulfilling a union priority, he moved patrol cops to a four-day work week--despite opposition from his command staff. He has also made a point of recognizing good work.

Kroeker points to a survey that shows morale was no worse in 2000 than the level recorded in the previous survey, two years before. "In a lot of organizations where the morale is really bad, the chief says, 'Morale is good'--and I don't want to be that chief," he says, sounding anguished. "I may be deluding myself, but I don't think it's that bad, particularly since the new work schedule."

B

RUNNING THE SHOP
"Solid work here, Mark!"
Kroeker is making the bureau more top-heavy but is also harnessing technology and better management practices.

Even in the mundane and tedious world of management, Kroeker managed to spark controversy early on. Besides the haircuts, he also set up an L.A.-style nonprofit police foundation, an idea that had been panned by a Portland citizens advisory committee that cited the potential for improper quid pro quos.

The foundation, headed by the Rev. Dr. Robert Pamplin, has raised $110,000. So far, it has funded an awards dinner for cops; later, it will pay for equipment and training. At a time when money is tight, officers appreciate the extra cash.

"Kroeker deserves credit for that, because it wouldn't have happened without him," says Rictor, the ex-commander.

Kroeker's boss, for her part, gushes about his use of technology, such as a crime-tracking system to help deploy his officers. Before him, Katz says, "There wasn't a chief who handled that data in an analytical fashion."

In his second year, Kroeker shook up his top staff. He upgraded several positions to higher rank and pay, while creating several new posts, hiring an assistant-chief-level civilian manager, Nancy McPherson, to head an auditing unit. This came in addition to doubling the size of internal affairs.

In short, Kroeker has made the bureau more top-heavy even while cutting public hours at precincts, along with the desk clerks who helped citizens and patrol officers.

Still, the changes tackle longstanding problems within the bureau. His beefing up of internal affairs helped cut down a backlog that had officers and citizens looking at a 13-month wait after a misconduct complaint was made.

Kroeker's changes could improve the bureau's reputation for mediocre middle-management. Yearly personnel evaluations for employees should encourage good work, while McPherson gives Kroeker an outside opinion with which to judge his administrators.

"I think there needed to be better management inside the bureau," says Francesconi. "Bringing in an outside person with expertise, I think that's a good thing."

Finally, Kroeker has brought more women and minorities into higher levels of the bureau, which should help efforts to increase diversity through recruiting--an area in which the bureau has had zero success thus far.

 

The PR job doesn't end on Friday. Last Saturday, Kroeker stopped by a North Portland Burgerville to help raise money for the Police Bureau's youth program.

C

DEALING WITH THE PUBLIC
"Mark, we'd hoped for better."
Kroeker's excellent work in some regards is negated by a lack of results in community policing.

In Los Angeles, public relations was considered Kroeker's major strength. It showed during his rookie year in Portland, when he went to great lengths to deal with detractors after the flaps surrounding May Day and the taped comments. "He absolutely wanted to do that," says Katz. "I didn't have to force him."

Kroeker did better in 2001, earning kudos for his ability to restore relations with the Latino community in the wake of an officer's killing of Jose Mejia Poot, a mentally ill Mexican man. He also won praise for meeting with leaders of Muslim groups immediately after the Sept. 11 attack and his championing of civil liberties during the city's flap with Ashcroft.

Today, he's taking his biggest flak in the nebulous world of community policing. For some, community policing is a feel-good buzzword aimed at pacifying neighborhood associations and ethnic minorities. For others, like former commander Rictor, the term means good policing--getting officers out of patrol cars to work with residents and local agencies on neighborhood problems.

In Los Angeles, Kroeker was the city's community policing guru, which is one reason Katz hired him. She says she's pleased with his work in Portland, noting that he addressed concern over car prowls, sending officers out personally to respond to calls.

Others aren't convinced.

"I go to neighborhood meetings, and occasionally I see a neighborhood liaison officer," says Commissioner Hales, Kroeker's biggest critic on the council. "I go running downtown on the waterfront on nice summer days, and I see police cars driving down the sidewalk on the sea wall. What are they doing in their cars?"

A recent survey by City Auditor Gary Blackmer suggests that community policing has slipped in Portland, though the slide started before Kroeker ever got here. Compared with 10 years ago, the report says, "Fewer residents are willing to work with police to improve their neighborhoods, and fewer residents report knowing their neighborhood officer."

Kroeker's most tangible push toward community policing is a plan he first implemented in Los Angeles to recruit a resident crime-watcher for every block. Working with these "block captains" would be 30 neighborhood officers, directing police to trouble spots.

But the bureau has a fraction of the neighborhood cops it needs, and the city is having problems recruiting 1,500 volunteer block captains. Commissioner Saltzman says, "The question is, what is he going to do once he recognizes that we aren't going to get the block captains?"


When Kroeker was a boy, his parents served as missionaries in Zaire, where, he says, he developed strong friendships.

Richard Brown, who heads a Northeast Portland neighborhood crime-watch group, disagrees with Kroeker's plan, saying community policing should be every cop's job, not just a select few. Under Kroeker, community policing "is taking a step backwards," says Brown, who teaches community policing at the nonprofit Western Community Policing Center in Salem.

Brown is also frustrated by the slow pace of progress on racial profiling. Brown says officers continue to pull over black men with broken taillights and ask to search their car. "Two years after Moose is gone, we're still sitting around in a circle intellectually masturbating," he adds.

It seems that the critics are less concerned with what Kroeker is doing than with what he is not doing. "I don't see any big initiatives coming from him, and I see the areas of racial profiling and community policing where we are slipping backwards," says police-accountability activist Dave Mazza. "He needs to do more than just not do anything bad to get a passing grade."

Rictor, who is not considered a Kroeker fan, says such criticisms miss the mark. He thinks the chief is an easy target because he's an outsider. "There is no substitute for time," he says.

Taking such factors into account, Mark Kroeker starts to look downright not that bad--and clearly not as bad as some people were expecting after his first year in Portland.

Ray Mathis of the law-and-order Citizens Crime Commission says you need to look at Kroeker's marks in context: The pool of decent chiefs is small and shrinking every day. One of the chief's best friends in Portland, Mathis says we have "if not the best, one of the best chiefs in the country."

Even Alan Graf, a frequent cop critic who is heard on KBOO as the self-described "hippie lawyer," says the chief is doing a surprisingly decent job.

But now that Kroeker has survived his baptism by fire, people expect more. Says Hales, "Most bureau managers have a clear mission, a change agenda, and yet I can't say that about Mark Kroeker."

"He has this anemic reputation--and at a time when we have the least crime in what, 30 years?" says Duffy. "You'd think he'd be able to build some kind of sense of mission that's recognizable to the public."

Dan Handelman of the group CopWatch says Kroeker has been "more of a politician than a visionary. He says what he thinks people want to hear."

 

After a shaky start, Kroeker is poised to play to his strengths.

C+

OVERALL (B- on the curve)
"Suggestions for growth, Mark!"

Kroeker, for his part, says he's not happy to receive anything less than an A, adding that he takes the criticism seriously and, sometimes, personally. "My wife says, 'Oh, Mark, don't be so sensitive'--but I read stuff, and it hurts," he says. "In a sense, I want to feel that way, because if I don't care, then I won't be as responsive as I want to be."

That's exactly the attitude Kroeker needs if he plans on sticking around and leaving a mark on this city.

Francesconi says Kroeker, the son of Mennonite missionaries, can learn from Moose, who looked outside the cop shop and pushed for programs in affordable housing and helping disadvantaged kids. Such a step would seem natural for Kroeker, who has, both as a youth and as an adult, lived in impoverished and war-torn foreign countries.

"He needs to view himself as part of a broader system," says Francesconi, noting Moose's extracurricular activities. "The chief may do it, but if so I'm not aware of it."

Sten thinks the chief should focus on keeping the city safe while preserving civil rights. "His mix of skills has been very useful since Sept. 11," adds Sten. "He has a chance to keep building on that and leave a powerful legacy, but I think he's got a lot to do to get there."


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