News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
Seattle's Philosopher Cop
Clark Kimerer (SF78)
In his 25-year career, Clark Kimerer (SF78) rose from patrol officer to second-in-command of one of the nation's largetst police forces. He's gained a national reputation for his expertise in emergency preparedness and homeland security.
There have been moments in his 25-year career when Seattle's Deputy Chief of Police Clark Kimerer (SF78) has questioned his line of work. In 2006 when a Seattle gunman shot several young adults at a rave dance after-party and then pulled the trigger on himself, Kimerer and his boss, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, were called to the scene. Kimerer had to share the grim news with the victim's families, brief the media, and console the teenagers who were grieving for their friends. "It was one scene of human despair after another over a six-hour period," says Kimerer. "When it came time to walk through the scene, I turned to Gil and said, 'I'm not sure if I want to walk through another slaughter. I see my own kids every time I do.'"
"You have to do it," Kerlikowske told his deputy chief. "One, you have in your life been devoted to understanding this. Everything you have read and thought about the human endeavor to find out what is good in the world, you have devoted yourself to. Two, you have to do it to show the world that you care. And three, you have to do it to show yourself that you care."
As Kimerer walked through the grisly scene, trying to make sense of what his eyes were taking in, he thought of readings from Plato, Montaigne, Homer, and Hegel. "Snippets went sweeping through my mind: What is good? How can you find sense in this kind of slaughter? How do you make peace with what is bad? If you don't make peace, the alternative is despair. Kierkegaard was particularly poetic in how he explored this."
Each day Kimerer asks himself, "How do these great works have a place in my small life as a police officer? To make sense of the good is one way of dealing with the bad."
Yet Kimerer is quick to note that deep reflection does not always have a place in the line of duty. "Where do the readings not belong? They do not belong when there is a danger in thinking too much. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes how the last person you want in the crow's nest is someone 'given to unseasonable meditation' up there with a copy of the Phaedo, because he's looking at the distant horizon but completely misses the immediate threat." When making split-second decisions, Kimerer can't afford to be contemplative. "It's a time to stand watch. If you think too much, you won't survive."
Kimerer honed his ability to make split-second decisions during stints as a patrol officer, SWAT Team training officer, chief hostage negotiator, captain charged with vice and narcotics, and today as head of emergency preparedness for the city of Seattle. After he joined the force as a patrol officer 25 years ago, his survival depended on being constantly alert and mindful because "the situation could degenerate instantly." Kimerer excelled at making critical decisions under pressure and in 1985 became a SWAT Training Officer and Team Member, handling life-and-death situations every day. He trained "the guys [who] crash through the front doors, the deadly force cadre [whose] goal always is to save lives. I had to create a curriculum dealing with these issues as well as post-traumatic stress syndrome. We were often faced with making a good choice among many bad options."
Kimerer's education at St. John's "is a real conversation starter when sitting in a roomful of police chiefs." He is a gifted leader who studied at the FBI, Northwestern University, and the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. He is a philosopher cop who reads voraciously and is as compassionate as he is rational about his fellow human beings. Kimerer volunteers to help disabled adults, particularly the homeless, and embraces Oscar Romero's liberation theology, which maintains that values and ethics should be part of public policy. Kimerer never loses sight of the irony that he has "one of the most unusual job descriptions in civilization" and as deputy chief, he uses "coercive force to keep law and order."As second in command of the 19th-largest municipal police department, with a $226 million dollar annual budget and 1,870 employees, he also investigates cases, prevents human misery, and "protects every citizen, day in, day out." Ultimately Kimerer is a public servant, "bound by duty and responsibility, rather than authority and prerogatives."
Kimerer also oversees emergency preparedness and homeland security for the city of Seattle. Most city police departments do not oversee large-scale emergency and disaster response; however Seattle is a port city and headquarters of the Microsoft Corporation, a symbolic target for terrorist threats. Seattle is also vulnerable to natural disasters such as windstorms, landslides, and earthquakes. In 2001 the Nisqually Earthquake (magnitude 6.8) under the Puget Sound caused over $200 million in damage, and in 1999 the city's New Year celebration was cancelled when a man was caught smuggling bomb-making materials into the U.S. at Port Angeles, with plans to stay in a hotel near the city's famed Space Needle. To keep abreast of emergency-response and terrorist-prevention methods, Kimerer travels globally to meet with his counterparts in various governments and also advises the Major Cities Chiefs, an organization for the chiefs of the nation's 56 largest police and sheriff departments, on such strategies. "Here in Seattle we have a leading edge with data and communications systems that are interdependent. All these things help us to manage disaster."
Just five years into his career, Kimerer faced disasters of a different kind. He was tapped from SWAT Team training to become Chief Hostage Negotiator (a position he held from 1985 to 1992). In the midst of a tense situation, Kimerer learned to calmly persuade another human being by listening and asking questions. "It's a real devotion to understanding through listening," he explains. "Basically you're trying to get a desperate person, someone who's taken over a hostage, on a wavelength where you can reason with him or her."
Kimerer has seen 300 to 400 such scenarios in the past 25 years. "There are so many causes—behavioral disorders, chemical disorders—but the one thing each hostage taker has in common is single-mindedness, an inability to look beyond a self-formulated view of a course of action to be taken." As a crisis negotiator, Kimerer built a rapport. "I had to convey a profound level of attention to the person. I had to try to let the subject construct a larger universe, one that had options and other choices than suicide or murder."
Just as the horrific shooting scene from the rave after-party lingers in Kimerer's mind, so too does one hostage episode in which a suicidal-homicidal man, obsessed with his caregiver, barricaded himself and the woman in a clinic. "In this incident, you're looking at a lot of things. Sometimes that person wants to do what's called 'suicide by cop.' He wants the cops to kill him in front of someone that he's angry with; he wants to act out in a murder/suicide in front of those who have wronged him," says Kimerer. "I've seen hundreds of those cases."
In this case, Kimerer took it step-by-step. "The first thing I had to decide was who not to involve, such as the ex-spouses and psychiatrists. A lot of hostage takers have issues with authority and even clergymen can create problems. There are a lot of sensitive spots and each situation is different. The second thing I did was try to draw the hostage taker out to assess his personality by constantly asking question after question: 'Why would you want to put her at risk?' 'Let's not do anything until we can keep exploring this. Let's keep talking.' 'Where's the weapon?' I get him to put the weapon down, if possible. It's a dialectical exercise. It's Socratic. We know what we want the answer to be. It's not an open-ended, unconditional exploration. But you only see hostage takers change when they learn for themselves and discover for themselves."
Finally there was a breakthrough. Says Kimerer, "The subject admitted that the woman was like his mother and he was abused as a kid. Here was a chance to make contrasts, to point out that the woman he was keeping as hostage and planning to murder was not his mother. I could progress the dialectic along, tell him, 'This is not your mother. Let's talk about the differences and start creating some separation and some options.'"
Kimerer's ability to walk such delicate situations with skill and patience makes him a natural for law enforcement. Yet even though he grew up in a police family, Kimerer had no intention of joining the force. "My stepfather and my mother were both assistant police chiefs. My mother was the highest-ranking policewoman [in the country]. When she retired, she became a U.S. Marshall. My great uncle was a fire chief, my brother was chief of police, so the whole family was involved in the police force. I grew up socializing with the chiefs, so I was never intimidated by them or the paramilitary culture."
After he graduated from St. John's, Kimerer worked as assistant director of admissions in Santa Fe and studied at the Graduate Institute while his (now) wife Julie Berg (SF79) finished as an undergraduate. Today they live in Seattle and are raising three teenage sons. When they first moved to the city in 1979, Kimerer worked in a small business for several years, but he wasn't fulfilled. As a Big Brother volunteer, he got involved in a case where he worked closely with police detectives who were on the trail of a child molester. The criminal was sent to prison for several years, and Kimerer gained appreciation for the detectives' dedication. "I discovered that I was really excited about justice, even if it's not perfect justice," he says.
From his 8th-floor office with views of the Puget Sound, Kimerer recollects the dangerous days of his career: "I look back on my life, my St. John's education, the cop who spent four years looking at great books and argues vehemently for the rights of the downtrodden. Is this unusual? I don't know, but this is where my life has gone."
Today Kimerer is more likely to be dashing to a meeting than to a crime scene, "When I'm called out, that's when it's really bad, like the mass killing at the rave after-party. Otherwise, the biggest threat I might encounter these days," he says, "is a paper cut."
By Patricia Dempsey