Chief Sarah Mooney and the West Palm Beach Police Department:
Fair, Professional, Productive
By Julia Torres
Founded in 1894, the West Palm Beach Police Department has become a pioneering city, one in which developers flock, culture diversity is evident and opportunities for police advancement are available to all who prove themselves capable, knowledgeable and professional. Sarah J. Mooney, the current Chief of Police for approximately one year, foots that bill.
Mooney, who is the second female Chief in West Palm, joined the officer ranks in 1995 at the age of 25. Law enforcement, however, was not her initial career. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, while working on her Masters in Clinical Social Work, Mooney began an internship at the federal prison in Tallahassee. There, her interest in law enforcement was piqued and once the interning ended, she put herself through the academy. When finished, Mooney was hired by the West Palm Beach Police Department, exactly where she wanted to be.
Being an avid swimmer, understanding the meaning of teamwork and maintaining the discipline associated with being an athlete were experiences that prepared her for the upcoming future she had not sought but would love.
Let’s listen to Chief Mooney’s own words on different topics:
How was West Palm Beach when you first got on the job in 1995 compared to what it is now?
It’s kind of night and day. When I started, it was a little bit like a war zone. That year, we had a really high murder rate and a lot of shootings. Back then, it felt like there was 10 times more activity, but it never really got advertised. There were certain areas that would be historically known as, oh, you don’t go in those areas, but we went. That’s where you learned how to do police work.
West Palm is turning into a big city, but it still has a smaller city feel. There’s been a lot of growth over the years, some areas have been reinvigorated, new buildings, new businesses, new housing. I think I see more cohesiveness in the city now.
Tell me about police suicide. Have you seen that here? If so, what do you try to do to prevent it?
We had, unfortunately, a couple of years ago, we had on officer who committed suicide. It struck everybody to the core because I think a few people felt guilty themselves, and everybody was second-guessing. With my background as a clinical social worker, one of things I try to do as Chief is develop ways so that conversation is out on the table, that the officers and the other people that work in our building have the resources so they can speak with someone.
We have opportunities for people to get help. I have a gentleman coming in next month that really focuses on the entire dynamic. He was a police officer and went through the ups and downs and the craziness involved. He just got consumed by police work and almost lost everything as a result of it. We try to make sure that we have a conversation that if someone needs help, they get it, and if somebody sees that somebody needs help, that they’re not afraid to make a referral or let somebody know, “Hey, I think we need to reach out and get some assistance to this person.”
Do they absolutely know that it’s not going to be frowned upon?
I think so, but I think it’s the nature of cops that they sometimes think that they’ve got to be indestructible. That’s kind of the message we try to preach to them, that you don’t. It’s the guardian, warrior thing. You can’t take care of other people if you can’t take care of yourself. I try to put that out there. We try to build it into in-service training. We offer opportunity for people to get training in crisis intervention, to recognize signs and symptoms of things that you can do to adjust your lifestyle a little bit that will make you healthier when things are really not.
As a female, how hard was it to go up the ranks?
I never looked at it as being a female trying to get up the ranks. This city, this department in particular, offers a lot of opportunities to anyone who’s going to come in here and do what you gotta do, work hard and try to do your best every day. As far as being a female, sure, there’s only a couple of instances where that even crossed my mind, that I was different because I was female. I think that a lot of other people like to showcase that.
I like to be recognized as a Chief because I’m a Chief, not because I’m a female Chief. It was kind of a double edge sword for me, too, because yes, I think it’s really a great honor to be the Chief here, but I don’t want to minimize the position by saying, “Oh yes, I am a female.” To me, that’s not the most important part, but it is important to showcase that for people, to say yes, you have a female Chief and it’s possible.
I’m actually the second female police chief in our county but the second police chief in our city. We have a lot of females sprinkled out through the police department. We just had our first female make the SWAT team. The SWAT team has been around since 1974. She was the first female to get through the trial process that’s horrendous mentally, emotionally, physically, but she did it. When I see things like that, that’s when you know you’re really even keel and everybody’s got an opportunity.
What are the challenges that media brings on law enforcement?
I think that they draw conclusions a little bit too quickly and they expect us to have the answers to everything immediately when something happens. Sometimes, we’re not able to answer as quickly as possible. Instead of just creating a narrative without our input, one of the things would be to try to get them to pull back, give enough information out, and try to educate them a little bit on the negative impacts of trying to put a story out there just to try to be the first one, whether you have the facts or not.
We try to be as forthcoming as we can when incidents happen, and in this day and age with instant gratification, everybody wants to see it right now. That is killing us. If we have a crime, we want to solve it as quickly as possible, and believe me, we want to solve it quicker than that reporter wants to solve it. I want to give you the whole story. I want to tell you how we did it, how the bad guy got arrested and put away, that we saved a life, and give you all the details on everything, but we get crucified if we give you one piece of information that ends up not being correct, so we have to be very cautious.
Having a good relationship with the media, having an understanding that we want to be as transparent as possible, we want to give you the information you want to put in a story, we want people to know what we’re doing, but keep in mind, we’re not infallible. Sometimes, we do things wrong and we take responsibility. Don’t paint everybody with the same brush, because I have 294 officers and I have 294 different ways of doing things to a certain degree, different personalities, different people going to react to different things, so it’s just a matter of remembering that cops aren’t just uniforms running around. There are people inside those uniforms and everything that gets reported affects these officers.
What do you say to the people who say that cops don’t get what they deserve when they are caught doing something wrong?
Put yourself in their shoes. The whole time you’re in the police job, you’re learning. Every single day, you’re learning something new and if you have stopped learning, then it’s time to get out because you will never know everything. Cops aren’t infallible. Should they get punished more severely? No. Should they be held accountable? Absolutely. You have many officers in the world, there’s bound to be some that are not above board but the majority of them are. To take 1 million people and say they’re all bad because one guy did something wrong, it doesn’t paint the right picture.
What do you see for the future of this agency?
Right now, we have a couple billions’ dollars in building projects, residential, retail. Whole parts of the city are being reorganized so the population is going to grow and the department itself is growing. We have some plans to update our technology and some of the crime-fighting tools. Every time I look at the technology, it seems to be updated for next week and then a month later, something greater comes out. Our officers are really doing a good job of fighting crime.
I’d like to push for the guys and girls to be out in the community. The community will tell you what they want from you or what they don’t want, what they think you’re doing good, what you’re not. It’s important to be in touch with that because sometimes you have officers driving around, the windows up, not really paying attention. I see our agency, get your windows down and park your car, get out and talk to people, fill needs in the community. It might be something as simple as to go by a community center that has afterschool programs, play basketball, teach a class or something, be present and available.
It’s not about trying to create more distance. It’s not just cops and robbers. This is a community engagement. It’s just as important for officers to experience the positive feedback. Younger kids have a tendency to provide more of the positive feedback, to tell you that they appreciate you. You don’t hear that a lot. If all you do is watch the news when everything bad happens and that’s what’s being glorified, then you keep banging your head against the wall, like, “What am I doing?” Then you go to an afterschool program, you have 10 little kids so excited to see the police officer and have a conversation. You’re making an impact on those 10 little people. That’s going to stick with them forever. It’s being able to look at the whole picture and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and really make an impact in the community.
Indeed, Chief Mooney’s background in clinical social work paved the way for her career in law enforcement. For a year now, the members of the West Palm Beach Police Department and the community have experienced working and living with a leader whose progressive mind includes relationship, mutual respect and understanding for the betterment of society.
Surely, West Palm, whose 2017 homicides included 27, is bound to find a drop in next year’s statistics. The fact that overall crime has decreased 5-6% according to last year’s Uniform Crime Reporting may be an indication that this developing city is headed in the direction of unity.
We at Blue pray much success over Chief Mooney, the West Palm Beach Police, and its community. May God protect the men and women in blue.
Julia Torres is a Doctoral candidate at Drew University. She earned a Master of Science in Homeland Security with a certification in Terrorism Studies from Fairleigh Dickinson University; a Jersey City State College, K-12 Teacher Certification; and a Bachelor of Arts Visual Arts from Rutgers University, where she enlisted in the Army Reserves. Upon graduating Rutgers, she began a career in law enforcement, and later volunteered for the Gulf War. Once home, she worked undercover until retiring in 2001 due to a Gulf War illness. Since then, she has done volunteer work, acted, and written two non-fiction books.