Jacqueline Seabrooks, Chief of the Santa Monica Police Department, isn’t comfortable with the label “trailblazer.” It’s a trite term, clichéd, and Chief Seabrooks likes to deflect personal accolades, preferring to give credit to the department she leads and staying focused on the task at hand.
But on the other hand, what else do you call the first woman to serve as a sergeant at SMPD? The first to be promoted to lieutenant and, later, captain. The first woman to serve as Chief of Police of the Inglewood Police Department. Then, the first woman to take the helm of SMPD, when she was named Chief of Police on May 29, 2012.
The truth is, trailblazer is a limiting term when applied to Chief Seabrooks. By focusing on the long list of “firsts” on her resume, you run the risk of overlooking the three decades of consummate professionalism and excellence she has brought to the law-enforcement community. She has succeeded in every imaginable role in law enforcement. She has continuously strived to better herself, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees while balancing a demanding career. She has taught criminal justice courses at the collegiate level. She has developed a nationally acclaimed cultural competencies program and lectures on the topic to audiences across the country. She also addresses police executives nationwide on topics ranging from crisis communication to risk management. Her leadership skills as a police chief have drawn national attention. In fact, during her tenure as Chief of Police in Inglewood (2007-2012), the city’s crime rates dropped to mid-’70s levels.
Recently, Chief Seabrooks generously granted CalSouthern an extensive interview, speaking on topics ranging from the evolution of the law-enforcement field over the past 30 years to gender and race issues in law enforcement, her most rewarding moments in municipal police work, the keys to her success, and much more. She also offers advice to those who aspire to a career in criminal justice.
We present Part One of the interview below.
CalSouthern: You’ve been involved in law enforcement for more than 30 years, getting your start at a very early age. What sparked your interest in law enforcement?
Chief Seabrooks: Well, I wish I could say that it was something noble, but in reality, I was a somewhat bored college student who was unsure what I wanted to do. An instructor of mine noticed, and one day gave me an application to the California State Police Division, mentioning that it was something he thought I might be good at, but that it would be demanding.
I was just 18 years old. I took a look at the application and it sparked an interest; I was always captivated by the law. I transferred to another college that had a strong criminal justice department and began taking courses. I found I loved talking about the law and learning about the Constitution and other aspects of law enforcement, including the more practical skills of interviewing techniques, physical fitness, etc. I put some of this knowledge and skills into practice when going through the interview process for the State Police and was chosen as an officer.
CalSouthern: Did you enjoy police work from the start?
Chief Seabrooks: Actually, I found working for the State Police a little limiting. The scope of that department is to protect certain buildings and state officials—and not a lot else. So after a couple of years, I started researching some of the agencies that my colleagues and friends from the police academy worked for, and landed on Santa Monica. It seemed like an excellent department and it was at the beach—how bad could it be? I called and was fortunate to get through the process quickly and transfer to Santa Monica, which is where I came to really enjoy the work.
CalSouthern: What was it about the work that appealed to you?
Chief Seabrooks: Doing municipal police work, you can really make a difference. A store is robbed, you find the bad guys and arrest them, and you’ve made a difference. People are suffering from domestic violence in the home, you go to their home—perhaps make an arrest—you talk to them, you engage in counseling referral, and you make a difference. It is extremely rewarding.
I was always fascinated by the law, but municipal police work isn’t law in the abstract, it’s dynamic and relevant—law in its living form, applied in real-time to the circumstances you’re presented with, all with the goal of making a positive difference in the community.
These factors caused me to develop a passion for the work and they are some of the same reasons I remain passionate about it, 30 years later.
CalSouthern: What are some of the most personally rewarding or satisfying moments you’ve experienced over the course of your career in law enforcement?
Chief Seabrooks: Many things come to mind. It’s very satisfying for me to see how far the organizations I have worked with—and law enforcement in general—have come in terms of embracing diversity, particularly women and people of color. When I first joined, women as supervisors were almost unheard of. I was actually the first woman to be promoted to sergeant here; it is interesting to think of the reaction then and juxtapose it to now, when it is commonplace and no one is surprised by it. Back then, there was some “Who do you think you are? You think you’re up to this? You can’t do that.”
It was very rewarding to take on that role, as it was when I was the first to be promoted to captain and then lieutenant. It’s not something I reflect on frequently, but to have taken on those responsibilities and shown others it can be done, I suppose it does set a tone. A number of women have told me that I have been a role model for them, and that is extremely gratifying.
There are many others, too, probably too many to mention. Things like going through motorcycle training and riding that motorcycle on patrol for a few years. It was grueling and physically demanding and something totally different from anything I’d done before—but a great experience nonetheless.
Working full-time running a division, but finding the time and motivation to return to school to get my undergraduate and graduate degrees—that’s another milestone that comes to mind, and probably one that many of CalSouthern’s students can relate to.
CalSouthern: What are some of the most significant sources of frustration that you’ve encountered in your career in law enforcement?
Chief Seabrooks: I suppose they would be associated with the artificial roadblocks that were put in my way and in others’ way, the frustrations that come with wondering why so much seemed to revolve around preconceived notions about gender or race, and not about the work.
But, as I mentioned, we have come a long, long way in this regard. Now it’s the odd circumstance and not the norm. And I like to think I am a better person for going through it; out of adversity comes learning. I try to draw on this and do my best to ensure that I create a work environment where these things won’t be tolerated.
CalSouthern: You mentioned how law enforcement has evolved in terms of embracing diversity. What are some other ways in which the field has evolved over the course of your career?
Chief Seabrooks: The most obvious is the proliferation of technology. When I first came on, we only had a few computers in our stations, and now we have sophisticated ones in our cars. Technology has greatly improved our reach and effectiveness. For example, we have access to more and better data to help us deploy our resources more effectively. We can process evidence much faster and more effectively. Manual searches that once took months can now be done in seconds; we can match fingerprints across a nationwide database in a matter of minutes.
Also, the level of professional sophistication has risen dramatically. The young people coming into the business today are more savvy in terms of how they embrace technology and apply it in new and sometimes unforeseen ways.
Today, what we do in our department is informed by what happens on a county, state and national level and sometimes by events on the international stage. We are aware how international events can come home and manifest in some way, shape or form. Today, our perception of threats and safety has evolved. For example, “domestic terrorism” wasn’t a phrase that we used in 1981, but it’s one we certainly are acutely aware of now.
CalSouthern: In another first, you became the first woman to become Chief of Police of the Inglewood Police Department in October 2007. Could you describe your initial impressions of the position? Was it what you expected?
Chief Seabrooks: I really went into the job without any expectations and with my eyes wide open. I didn’t know many people in the department, but had lived in the city for a few years before taking the position. I can tell you that what you read in the paper and hear in polite conversation is often very different from the reality you see once you’re immersed in an organization and see all its warts, all the bubbles in the paint.
I was a bit surprised at how difficult the job was, in the sense that a police chief must answer to many masters. There’s the community for which you work, and the community is not a single entity, but rather is made up of many sometimes-competing factions. Then there’s the political arena, which also is comprised of multiple factions. And, of course, you have the police union, which you have to educate, carefully listen to and respond with appropriate corrections. As chief, you are definitely spinning a number of plates.
CalSouthern: How did you deal with this challenge?
Chief Seabrooks: The key for me was to identify and then focus on the core mission. In Inglewood, our mission was threefold: First and foremost, we were there to fight crime. Second, I wanted to make sure that the organization and the people who comprised it felt valued and respected. Third, I wanted to ensure that we were an absolutely ethical department. That’s what we focused on.
In reality, in wasn’t easy. I was operating in a depressed economic circumstance in a community that was particularly hard-hit economically and where crime was a major concern. Another reality—and I think this is common from organization to organization, both in and out of law enforcement—there was a group of approximately 10 percent that did not contribute to the value add; they didn’t do the right thing and give us a reason to be proud. We had to exclude those folks from the organization as quickly as possible, making sure the department’s health was intact while doing everything we could to garner the community’s confidence.
It was a difficult task, but I am extremely proud of how the department pulled together and turned itself around.
Coming next issue: Part Two, in which Chief Seabrooks discusses the keys to her success and the importance of education. She also offers advice to aspiring law-enforcement professionals.