Driving into the Sunset

by Kevin Taylor & r & When Roger Bragdon retired from the Spokane Police Department last week, he wanted to go out the way he came in 32 years ago -- flying by the seat of his pants in a cruiser. So even though he had come up through the ranks from a graveyard-shift officer to become chief of police, Bragdon wanted to get out and ride the streets once more.

"I love the patrol unit. When I get dementia, that's the only thing I'll remember," Bragdon says from behind his desk, with only a few days left on the job. "So for my last duty shift, I want to wear the patrol uniform."

He looks down at his chief's uniform, covered with pins and stripes and gold badges.

"Which means taking off all this gold crap. I am going to put on my original gun belt -- which still fits, I am proud to say," Bragdon adds.

Getting rid of the gold crap, getting back in a car to spend a shift looking people in the eye out on the streets -- Spokane didn't just close the book on a police chief last week. The city may have closed out an era.

"I'm an anomaly," Bragdon says. He is one of the few urban police chiefs who doesn't have a college degree. "Most officers have degrees today. It's my embarrassment that here's the chief without one."

He admits to being a wild cowboy when he started on graveyard shift, wrecking -- with longtime partner John Henry -- about 20 police cars during hot pursuits.

As a result, he spends his final shift Dec. 16 as a passenger in the patrol cruiser of Cpl. Jim Muzatko.

"He won't let me touch anything," the chief complains as he folds his lanky frame into the car for the second half of his final shift.

But Bragdon's folksy demeanor and storytelling is disarming, and can mask a sharp intelligence. Even as a patrol officer, Bragdon has long pushed for the SWAT teams, rapid response teams, use of technology, community outreach and training techniques that have made the SPD a model of efficiency.

Bragdon has spent the last five years running the largest police agency in the region. During the last four years he -- along with other city department heads -- has had to juggle and chop his budget as the city has faced repeated multi-million shortfalls in the general fund. As a result, Bragdon has laid off police officers, support staff, demoted captains and lieutenants one rank each to save on salaries and recently has had to make cuts in training programs -- which he sees as the essential foundation of the force.

It's taken a toll and led to his decision to retire abruptly at 57.

"After two or three years of budget cuts, it wears you down," he says. "I couldn't pay attention to the whole job. I try to give 100 percent and every day I demand 100 percent from the people who work for me.

"At the end, I felt I wasn't giving 100 percent, and I can't demand what I can't give," Bragdon says. "This is a tremendous police force even with the personnel cuts. It needs somebody with legs and energy."

"Do I get trained?" & r & Bragdon came here in 1973, just as Spokane was on the verge of hosting a world's fair -- at the time, the smallest city to attempt such an undertaking. The police force was hiring.

Bragdon had grown up in the mill town of Pittsville, Mass., the eldest of eight children in a poor family. Many of the town's woolen mills were pulling up stakes and relocating in the South for cheaper labor. Bragdon worked for a while at the General Electric plant, then joined the army, where he completed his GED, and became a military policeman. While stationed in Hawaii, he met Amy Shimizu, a teacher from Spokane, married her and moved here.

When he became a police officer in July 1973, "They gave you a box and then they filled it with your revolver, ammunition, manuals and they gave you a voucher and sent you down to J.C. Penney's to get two uniforms and report back for work," Bragdon recalls. "I asked, 'Do I get trained?' And they said read the books."

Bragdon did more than that: Not only did he read the books, but he also graduated first in his class at the 1973 police academy. Then he began to persistently question the way things were done in Spokane.

It caused trouble on the job, where he was seen as a problem child. "I did not take well to supervision," Bragdon says. It caused trouble at home, where Amy says her husband reminded her of the problem kids she dealt with in her classrooms -- bright kids who got into trouble because they were bored or questioned authority.

So like any good teacher, she challenged Bragdon to put his money where his mouth was and take civil service tests for promotion to sergeant, detective, specialist, lieutenant, captain.

"I was a happy guy. If I wasn't married, I'd probably still be a happy graveyard policeman," Bragdon says.

He was so happy that he spent 13 years working graveyard, and his reasoning was simple: "The bad guys are out at night.

"People always ask, 'Why did you become a cop?' And cops always say it's to help people," Bragdon says. "Well that's only half true. You know you are going to help people, but you also know you are going to have fun."

"...difficult to supervise" & r & With the sort of relish perhaps only someone in his shoes can fully understand, Bragdon recalls the era when Spokane police still walked sidewalks in rowdier parts of town on Friday and Saturday nights. Cops walked up and down Market Street in Hillyard and along West Main downtown -- both areas full of bars and various vices.

Cops quickly learned to wear the scruffier of their two uniforms on those shifts because "You knew you were going to get in a fight," Bragdon says.

He also knew he was going to get in wrecks. He and partner John Henry were notorious for getting into car chases.

"Between my partner and me, we wrecked 20 police cars. I wrecked nine. He wrecked 11. And none of them were accidents," Bragdon says. "They were all in car chases."

Bragdon's department -- like most in the nation -- no longer allows full-tilt, full-contact car chases out of concern for public safety. And science has entered the fray as well, with officers trained in what are called PIT maneuvers (pursuit intervention techniques). This is where police can almost delicately tap a fleeing vehicle to spin it to a stop.

"Back then there were no PIT maneuvers," Bragdon says. "You just knew at some point the guy would take a corner wide, you could get to the inside and ram him."

Looking back, he says two things with a mixture of pride and surprise:

One: "No officer on this force has wrecked nine cars."

Two: "We found ourselves in the captain's office a couple of times but never got a letter of reprimand. I don't know why -- if I was chief then, I would have had some."

The police force had a mix of cars in those days, Bragdon says -- Chevys, Chryslers, Dodges. The Dodges, especially, he said, could be made to sound a lot cooler by simply inverting the air filter.

"You got a great rumble," Bragdon says. "The chief, Wayne Hendron -- he was my first chief and he called me Bob -- used to get so mad. He would issue orders that no one turn the air filters over.

"I was difficult to supervise. I was hard-headed, stubborn," Bragdon says. They were cowboy days, and he was part of a cowboy force, he says. A kind of police force that can't exist any more, he says.

He recalls a spike of officer-involved shootings in his early days as chief. Things had to change. Cops had to change. He had to change.

"In my time as chief, there have been 14 officer-involved shootings," Bragdon says. The victims waved guns, pulled guns or shot at or threatened officers, the chief says.

Two were especially notorious: one when a young black man, distraught over a breakup, was shot downtown after brandishing a gun; the second, when a Coeur d'Alene tribal member - a teenager who was deaf - was shot while holding a realistic-looking pellet gun.

"In the old world, police are quiet about what they do," Bragdon says. He decided to reach out and meet with family and others connected to the victims after each of those two shootings.

"I met with them so they could ask me all the questions. It's very, very difficult to put closure on something like that," Bragdon says.

"I listened" & r & Looking around at younger patrol officers in the PD's drill room last week, Bragdon says, "These guys aren't here because they're big and strong and can wrestle bad guys to the ground. They're here today because they can communicate with people."

Bragdon, with his ethic of not asking for what he can't give, did the same. Since becoming chief he has met with blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in Spokane in an attempt to build some trust and vent some of the suspicions about racial profiling.

"I knew minority communities had a bad relationship with police here ... that they felt disrespected, that no one was listening, that they had no voice," Bragdon says. "So I decided to do it personally. It had to be the chief. I never sent a delegate. The first 50 meetings, it was all venting. But I listened."

And over time, the discourse reached the level of finding solutions, Bragdon says. He worked with minority leaders and with union reps for the police, aware that both sides had to buy into a new paradigm on race relations.

The outcome, he says, is a more professional police force that has a better relationship with the people it serves.

"If that is all we accomplished here, that's worth it," Bragdon says.

Not as exciting as a tire-smoking car chase at 3 am, but the quieter kind of effort that tries to make this a better city.

Whether flying by the seat of his pants in a patrol car, or sitting behind the chief's desk, it's the sort of work Bragdon enjoyed.

Photos courtesy of the Spokane County Law Enforcement Museum.