Top Cop

Kathy Atwood, ’99 MPA, brings homegrown awareness and spirit to her role as Everett Chief of Police

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Meryl Schenker
March 20, 2012
Getting to Know Chief Atwood

Good Food: Italian. Atwood and her son, Andy, enjoy lots of pasta.

Good Times: For fun, Atwood attends the sporting events of her son, who is a student at O’Dea High School, a golfer and a basketball player. This year Andy is trying out for baseball.

TV watching: When the TV’s not on the golf or MLB channels, Atwood mostly watches the news. Her guilty pleasure shows: What Not to Wear and Cash Cab.

Easy Listening: Atwood says she listens to most genres of music but the radio the dial is usually tuned to adult contemporary KMTT 103.7 FM.
Everett’s Chief of Police Kathy Atwood is well acquainted with the city that the officers on her force—more than 200 strong—patrol daily. While the city’s top cop no longer has a beat, Atwood knows these city streets through and through as an Everett native.

This city 25 miles north of Seattle is rich in history. Named an “All-America City” in 2002, Everett was once known largely as a mill town and as the home of the late Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, one of its most famous residents. These days, it’s perhaps best recognized as a port city, and as the location of Boeing’s central production plant and Naval Station Everett. The city has a small town, community-focused feel despite its population of more than 103,000 residents, making it the fourth largest metropolis in the Puget Sound region.

Atwood’s family has deep roots in this city. For years they operated Solie Funeral Home near downtown Everett and a cemetery in the south end of town. Her upbringing was not reminiscent of the TV show Six Feet Under, however. It was, she says, quite normal, even though she lived at the funeral home with her family (they occupied the basement) up until age 2.

Working in the city where she was raised carries special meaning for Atwood, a 22-year veteran of the Everett Police Department, who dreamed of becoming an officer ever since she was a student at Everett High School.

At the time, her uncle had other ideas for his law enforcement-minded niece. “He wanted me to join the FBI,” Atwood recalls. Although she couldn’t be swayed, it would take several years before she would officially begin her career as a cop.

After she graduated high school and during college, Atwood worked mostly retail jobs. When she was 21 she had the chance to join the Mount Vernon Police Department. That didn’t quite go as planned. “I took the police test and flunked it,” she says, now able to laugh it off.

In the mid-’80s, Atwood began her law-enforcement career in earnest when she took a job as a Community Assistance Officer with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. During this time she also served as a crime prevention specialist where she conducted block watch programs in neighborhoods and led seminars on personal safety.

When she left the Sheriff’s office, she headed to Florida to manage a retail store. A few years later she was back in Everett and ready to fully focus her attention on becoming a cop. After passing the necessary exams to become an officer, she started on patrol in 1989 and never looked back. Fairly early on in her career she was doing special operations and undercover work, this included posing as a prostitute in a John sting.

“It was very stressful. You have to maintain your safety at all times,” she recalls of the experience.

Posing as a prostitute was difficult, Atwood says, because you have to assimilate into a culture that was very foreign to her. She also had to learn what she calls the “sub-culture language” and slang used in that world and be convincing in wrangling a deal all the while maintaining her cover.

“Prostitution is a tragic lifestyle and in many ways I consider the women and girls, and young men as well, who are involved in prostitution as victims,” she says. “I don’t know of anyone who grew up aspiring to be a prostitute.”

Atwood has made it a personal mission to reduce prostitution and human trafficking citywide. The Everett Police Departments is part of the Sexual Exploitation Intervention Network in Snohomish County and Atwood was instrumental in developing the group in its early days when it was known as the Prostitution Prevention Network. The network, which consists of social service agencies and law enforcement partners, works to assist young people who are victimized by the sex-trade industry and provides programs and services for them to get out the business and lead healthy, productive lives.

“Through these efforts we endeavor to ‘rescue’ young women and get them on a new track,” says Atwood. “I’m in a position to continue to support these efforts by allocating resources in that direction.”

Atwood, a single mother to teenage son Andy, worked her way up the ranks in the department, from patrol officer to detective to sergeant, then on to lieutenant, captain and deputy chief.

Taking on the role of Chief of Police was not top of mind for Atwood, who was approaching her 50th birthday and considering retirement from law enforcement. That changed in late 2010 when her predecessor, Police Chief Jim Scharf, announced his retirement and recommended Atwood as his replacement. This past July she officially began her tenure.

“I’m humbled that I was chosen and also very proud that the department and city helped create a foundation for me to be successful. I am very grateful to be leading this organization,” she says. “We have a great department here and I enjoy the relationship we have with other law enforcement throughout the region.”

As police chief, Atwood’s typical day involves handling personnel issues, making hiring decisions, lots of meetings and engagement with community groups. Occasionally she has an opportunity to accompany her officers in the field, such as recently when she joined members of the Anti-Crime Team (ACT) in serving a drug-related search warrant at a home that was considered a chronic nuisance in an Everett area neighborhood. It happened to be in the very neighborhood Atwood grew up in. The ACT sergeant approached Atwood to join them in serving the warrant.

“We loaded up the van and travelled only a few short minutes. … Turns out it was only several blocks from the elementary school I attended so that made it even more satisfying to be involved,” Atwood says. When she and the team of officers arrived the occupants opened the door and were taken into custody. Neighbors watching the events unfold applauded as it all went down, Atwood says. “Being asked to participate in the warrant meant a lot to me,” she explains. “It meant that the unit trusted me; it gave me the chance to feel like a ‘real police’ for the day and reminded me of the reasons why I became a police office.”

As chief, Atwood also serves on various boards, committees or associations, including the FBI National Academy Association (Washington chapter)—she is a 2003 graduate of the FBI National Academy—and the Dawson Place Child Advocacy Board of Directors. Additionally, Atwood is on the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force Executive Board and the executive board for the NW High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). She also is a guest lecturer for the criminal justice program at Everett Community College, where she often covers topics pertaining to women in law enforcement, drawing from her personal story.

An immediate priority as chief is developing a long-term strategic plan for the department. Another immediate matter Atwood is addressing is staffing, which is one the challenges of the job.

“One of my goals is to get us up to full staff,” she says, adding that the department is fortunate to be one of the few in the region to be hiring.

As she talks about her work, Atwood is conversational and friendly, at times self-effacing. She isn’t fazed that she is the first woman police chief in Everett. In fact, she downplays its significance while acknowledging that other women in this line of work may have faced greater adversity because of gender.

“I view myself as a police officer. The gender makes no difference to me,” Atwood says. “Most departments now have an acceptance for diversity. I’ve always been surrounded by a culture that values diversity and women. It’s been a non-issue. I am just treated as a police officer.”

In the late 1990s, she began to contemplate going back to school to get a master’s degree. She saw it as a way to enhance her managerial skills and challenge herself. Although familiar with Seattle University and its “tremendous reputation,” she didn’t know too much about its master’s degree offerings until she started talking to a woman at a baseball game who was a graduate of the Master in Teaching program. After doing some research of her own, Atwood decided to enroll in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. Shortly after being admitted to the program, she became a detective and started a family. “I had an infant while in grad school,” she says.

In 1999, she graduated from SU with an MPA and finds she still draws from the knowledge she gained in the program.
“It has meant a lot to me not only to have the credential that the MPA has given me but also the advantage of seeing the bigger picture,” she says of her ability to see beyond the police department. “When making decisions I consider how they effect things both internally and externally. I look at the responsibility we have to help create a safe place to work, live and play, which ties into the economic vitality of our city.”

When talk turns to her proudest moments as Chief of Police, Atwood touts the department’s many community outreach programs that focus on crime prevention, the success of the gang prevention visits to area high schools and resource officers in the public schools that put a friendly face on public safety. She also praises her colleagues and those who have helped her get to where she is today.

“I’m proud to be part of a wonderful organization that is full of high-caliber professionals,” Atwood says. “I’m also very proud of the hard-working men and women here, the work they do and the difference they make.”
Everett Police Chief Kathy Atwood and Lt. Jerry Strieck take a break from running a dispatch scenario.
Alumna Atwood is the first female police chief in the Everett Police Department.