Note: Chief Bob Lee retired from the Auburn Police Department in June 2018. I was privileged to sit down with him shortly before his retirement. Though time has passed since his retirement, this article isn’t any less relevant or deserved. Thank you again, Chief Lee, for your service to Auburn. We hope retirement has been treating you well.
In 1981 at the age of 21, Chief Bob Lee’s father prodded him to determine what he was going to do with his life. With a cop show on TV, he made an off-hand suggestion to Lee that he consider police work. Seven months later Lee was hired on to the Auburn Police Department. 37 years later, he now has retired as its Chief of Police.
Lee shared that when he entered the academy, he had no expectations of what law enforcement work would be like. He thought he would begin with APD and transfer over to King County, joining the 13 King County cadets that were in his academy class. He expected the work would be more interesting with King County. However, according to Lee, shortly after arriving “I never thought of going any place else. [Auburn] felt like home.”
“When you come to Auburn,” Lee continued, “you find that it offers everything that you could imagine. [You’re] given a filling career – you’re busy, you meet great people, and you get to do a lot of different things.”
Throughout his career, Lee has risen through the ranks and served in many positions within APD. According to Lee, he used to say his favorite position was overseeing the special investigations unit in charge of narcotics investigations. That role now is a “close second to being Chief,” said Lee.
Changing the Stigma of Law Enforcement Through Diverse Recruitment
For Lee, the ability to meet those who want a career in law enforcement has been a highlight. He admits that staffing was an unexpected challenge in his role as Chief. A large part of staffing was “knowing there are limitations, being able to balance and work with the fellow department heads to look at the broader scope of the city’s needs and not just the police department’s needs. It’s what’s best for the community, for the city,” explained Lee.
Acknowledging the mistrust of police within society, Lee explained that hiring good people is one way he worked to address that mistrust. Since becoming Chief in 2010, 67 new people have come through the doors of APD (some replacing individuals who left the department). Lee shared that putting a strong emphasis on the quality of the individual and increasing the department’s diversity has been excellent for the agency.
“Unfortunately, you have those biases out there. [However,] when you look at the people we are hiring today, they don’t care about race, your sexual orientation. They don’t care about your economic status. We have a great group of [officers] that are in schools of diversity, and they’re coming out here blind to those. But nationally, you see that continues to be brought up in terms of a detriment of what the police are doing. That’s frustrating because we go out there and try to provide quality policing, taking action based on your behavior, not based on who you are.”
“The public, for the most part, understands,” Lee continued, “we’re moving in the right direction and have come a long way from when I started here. Certainly, the diversity of the community has changed, I think we’re moving that direction. It’s about being a good representative of the community and having good interactions.”
One thing that Lee is excited about is the variety of background and experience of the recent recruits from the past five to six years. He explained that hiring practices have changed, for the positive. When he receives a packet of a prospective hire, the first thing he reviews are their transcripts. “English is important as it must stand up to the prosecutor, judge, and defense critique. You must be able to write. If you can’t write, you aren’t going to make it,” explained Lee.
Some recruits do not have a college degree, but rather military experience. Lee has found that those with military backgrounds bring life experience maturity. This diversity in backgrounds allows officers to learn from each other.
Beyond staffing, APD increased community outreach under Lee’s leadership. Initiatives like the reintroduction of Bike Cops, increasing citizen’s academy to twice a year, a closer partnership with the schools and additional service clubs have help community policing efforts. Lee is proud of the Community Response Team, developed approximately 10 years ago, and their working within the community to respond to and follow up on issues. Because of their effectiveness, he is grateful both CRT and the Bike cops received funding for additional officers.
Lee also spoke to the valuable relationships built with the neighboring valley cities (Kent, Renton, Federal Way) and Port of Seattle. These partnerships allow for shared resource allocation. Two major resources shared are VALLEY S.W.A.T. and the South Correctional Entity (SCORE). With the level of training and proximity, these joint efforts are a benefit not just to the taxpayers, but to each city.
The use of social media is a new tool in community policing. Lee acknowledged that the use of social media has allowed APD to reach members of the community they may not have been able to. The connection also shows in the support the department feels from community members. “Anytime something national happens, boy there’s an outpouring of good support in the community here,” said Lee.
“When I see something on TV that’s happened somewhere [else], I don’t automatically jump to the defense of the officer,” explained Lee. Describing the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Lee said, “I looked at that and thought that’s horrible! There’s no place for that in law enforcement. I’m glad that was filmed, you wonder what would have happened had it not been filmed.”
“But for us, the social media piece,” Lee continued, “I think we handle it well. We all know [this generation of officers] have grown up with phones, they have the COBAN cameras in the car and there will be a slow roll out over the next few years of body cameras. They are not opposed to technology.”
Lee does not think that body cameras are a good or bad thing necessarily. “It gives you one perspective, but it has simmered down in recent years of people believing everyone should have them. Olympia has been slow because of public records and how that impacts staffing. More so than not, watching an in-car video has helped the officer.”
Investing in the Agency
Investing in the department was necessary for Lee. Beyond ensuring psychological and peer support was in place for the agency, several members of the department received extra training as health coaches. This allows those who wish to go on a diet program or focused exercise to have a trusted resource within APD. “They invest their lives being in this organization; it’s important to have a lot of support for them.”
Because it is talked about enough, there is a lack of stigma surrounding mental health in the department. Lee admits that times have changed, and it is more frequent that officers will choose to take vacation time off, rather than cashing it out. Having trust in his command staff helped Lee manage his own stress in his role as Chief. “Knowing whom I’m talking to on the phone, I have a lot of trust in them to make the right decision.”
Part of that trust comes from not just the experience of the command staff, but their continued training. Lee chose to send command staff to the Northwestern Command College for management training, instead of the often-chosen FBI training course. City Councilmember John Holman, a former law enforcement officer, commended this choice, explaining that while he would “never question Chief Lee, or tell him how to perform his duties, the Northwestern Command College is well-respected and was an excellent choice.”
Remembering His Time on the Force
Two incidents have stuck with Lee throughout his career. The first an ordinary shift that ended with joining a K-9 team in pursuit of a residential burglary suspect. The chase took the trio over a cedar fence, that had wire fence attached at the back. On the second pass over the fence, Lee’s finger became trapped between the wire and cedar at the top of the fence. When he kicked off the fence, a sharp pain shot through his hand. Lee had severed his finger at the tip.
The second incident Lee recalls is a fond memory to newly appointed Chief Pierson as well. Auburn was plagued by a serial robber targeting fast food establishments. Though they had never hit on a Wednesday night, the unit would sit at a few fast food joints. With a migraine pounding his head, Lee parked his undercover vehicle under the bright lights of the Pizza Time sign. With no activity, the unit moved to 15th ST NW, Lee parking to the side of Arby’s.
His engine still hot, another car backed in a few stalls down from Lee. Sliding down in his seat, Lee watched at the three occupants pulled stockings over their faces. Immediately he knew: this is it. Contacting his fellow units, they waited for the assailants in the parking lot to prevent a blockade inside the Arby’s. Upon their exit, the suspects attempted to flee but were all arrested. Of course, Lee’s migraine was gone after that.
“Look forward, reflect and be happy with what you got”
Without a second to think about it, Lee shared he will miss the people the most. He admitted it will be difficult to stay away but knows that unplugging is necessary – even if it will be different. He hopes that his legacy will be his fair and consistent leadership style. “You can issue discipline or tell someone why they didn’t get a position and be told thank you. Leaders tend to sugar coat sometimes. People want honest feedback. You can be a leader without being a jerk. We are in this position to build people up, not to tear them down.”
When asked what he felt the essential qualities for a Chief of Police were, Lee said “good people skills. It’s important always to remember where you came from. You’re dealing with different issues, from different platforms. Relationships with guilds and unions do not have to be adversarial. Know and convey that when you discipline, it’s an event that happened, that it’s handled and it is water under the bridge. Don’t hold grudges. Be as fair and impartial as possible. Have as high as a degree of integrity as possible and remain consistent. Develop professional friendships, but it all comes down to what’s best for the organization and the city. Be true to your values and do the right thing.”
A Good Succession Plan
Also important, Lee shared, is making sure to develop a good succession plan. He was fortunate to have Mayor Nancy Backus and the City Council’s support as he performed his duties as Chief. This support allowed strong building blocks to be put in place upon Lee’s retirement. Upon being named Auburn next police chief, Chief Pierson said that he knew Lee had wanted this for him for a long time. To hear Pierson speak of their relationship, it makes sense, “I have always looked up to Lee as he is the same ages as my brothers. It never surprised me to see him promoted to the rank of Chief as his demeanor, personality and character have always been a perfect fit for the job.”
“Lee conducted my background investigation when I was trying to get hired. I had only talked with him on the phone, but I was instantly impressed by him and gained quick respect for how he does the job.” Pierson continued, “I remember Lee when he was a brand-new sergeant in Patrol, and I was in training. We were quickly called to a man with a gun in the downtown area. As a new sergeant, Lee was calm given the circumstances, and I remember never seeing him appear agitated or nervous. He carried this demeanor into his career as a leader getting promoted to Commander, Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief and then Chief. As you can imagine, he stepped up to the plate at each phase and always did a great job. I naturally wanted to follow him and tried my best to stay in his hip pocket as I knew that watching and following a guy like that would definitely make me a better person and officer.”
“Once Lee became the chief, I knew that he would unleash his ideas, personality and of course his leadership style. For the first time in my 28 years, I see most of the department enjoying their jobs and the support a Chief like Lee provides. As an officer, you want to know that the Chief will support you and the department. They say good leaders make you feel safe. Lee will go out of his way as Chief to instill that feeling in everyone he makes contact with.”
During his retirement ceremony in June, Mayor Backus did not hide her sadness at Lee’s retiring, “When you have a friend you’re not going to be seeing on a daily basis, it’s a little tough to take.”
“Bob has been nothing short of a tremendous leader in this city,” Backus said. “He has led with dignity, with grace, with compassion, and also holding the officers in our department accountable at all times. He is a servant leader at all times.”
Reflecting on his 37-year career, Lee acknowledges that by being promoted he has missed some opportunities along the way. Being a K-9 officer or motorcycle traffic cop would have been interesting or fun with a different perspective, but ultimately, Lee said “I’m a person who doesn’t look back a day and say, ‘I wish I would have done this.’ If you’re going to go back and change something, things are going to change that you don’t like. Look forward, reflect and be happy with what you got.”
With his departure, Lee is excited for the next generation to take the agency, continue to provide better service and to be a better department. He looks forward to watching the department grow, from a distance.