By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The 34th DDs also heard from three candidates in the 7th Congressional District race – King County Council chair Joe McDermott, the group’s primary-election endorsee, who came in third and will not be advancing to the general, and the two candidates who will, State Sen. Pramila Jayapal and State Rep. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw. Video of all three, later in our story.
First, the panel (update: here’s the video):
On the policing panel were activist Bobby Alexander, retired judge and Office of Professional Accountability auditor Anne Levinson, Seattle Community Police Commission executive diredctor Fe Lopez, White Center Community Development Association executive director Sili Savusa, and King County Sheriff John Urquhart. Moderator was the 34th DDs’ state committeeman Chris Porter.
Lopez began by explaining more about the CPC – created after the “consent decree” requiring Seattle Police reform, to “institutionalize the community’s voice in the reform process.”
Commission members include, she noted, two representatives of SPD, and its work is meant to “bridge” the gap between the department and the community, she added.
She also underscored how new technology (cell-phone cameras) has shone a new light on problems that are not new, such as biased policing. Data on that wasn’t being collected until recent years, she said, which is a problem. She also promised to talk about race, saying that those in the audience were going to find themselves “uncomfortable” as a result.
Urquhart said, “We are here because of the problems the police have with the community, and vice versa – Ferguson, Staten Island, Pasco, Seattle – and that’s why we are still here talking about this in the middle of 2016,” despite, as he showed by reading magazine headlines from the early ’90s, this not being (as Lopez also had said) a new problem.
“We have a black president, legalized marijuana, same-sex marriage, but the police and the community are still fighting – why is that? … It’s our fault, the fault of the police largely why we are still having this discussion. … My department and the Seattle Police Department are too white and too male, and until we fix that, we will not have success in the community.”
Moderator Porter then spoke of some of what he has experienced as a black man – being asked to leave a store because he looked “suspicious”; being “dismissed” by a police officer taking a report about a burglary at his house, while the officer engaged primarily with his husband, who is white.
He wondered if he is seen as a lesser member of the community because of his race, “a poignant example of where some of the problem lies.”
Asked next about police accountability, on which she’s been working, Levinson (a West Seattleite) began with words of praise for Lopez and the CPC’s work. She said it’s time to move to “community-led policing … we are there as a society, and it is time to do that.”
She said the auditor role – which she now holds on an “interim” basis after the mayor decided against a formal extension – is one of three legs of the current oversight system. “We owe it to ourselves to be constantly improving and reforming the system we have,” to ensure it reflects community values, and to know that it will change over time. She spoke of how the investigation system has worked with complaints, and how it has been a challenge for a systemic problem to be addressed in one-off investigations. As a result, she said, she had recommended something that has been implemented by SPD, “management action findings.” Systemic problems she also saw the need to remedy include hiring policies such as those including “preference points” which can lead to continued hiring that doesn’t fully reflect the community.
She detailed “a wide range of work to be done,” still, to change not just the makeup of the force but also how police are supervised and assigned, how they interact with community members, how information is made available to the community, how major incidents are reviewed in “after-action reports … (about) what went wrong and what went right,” and more. “Seattle has different contracts for officers and sergeants than for lieutenants and captains, and that’s not OK,” she said – all on the force should have to play by the same rules. “Civilian oversight people” should have a role in negotiations, she added. And among the other potential reforms of which she spoke, officers fired by one department should not be able to go to work for another department. “We’re at the cusp of the next version of accountability,” she concluded, “and it’s past time for us to move to an improved system.”
Next – the topic of community trust, and, as Porter noted, “how it’s been so eroded” – with an example including an SPD tweet displayed on the screen.
Alexander spoke of a 2015 incident in which he was at Medina City Hall, interviewing for a police position. The chief spoke of the community’s relatively low crime rate, he said, and told Alexander that the city wasn’t “heavy on enforcement (but was) heavy on education,” and that police saw citizens as “customers.” But elsewhere, Alexander said, indigenous people, for example, are “not seen as customers. … The whole idea of our justice system is based on equality, just like the Constitution … if we know that everybody (should) be treated the same, but (is not), then it’s a consequence that trust will be eroded.”
If Korryn Gaines was in Medina, Washington, for example, she wouldn’t have gotten citations, police coming to serve a warrant, “and she wouldn’t have been shot.”
“When you talk about trust, it’s easy in my mind to go to Walter Scott … an officer who again, on a citation, stops a black man, the African American man runs away, they get in a conflict, and this man ends up being shot in the back … from over 15 feet away.” The erosion of trust “is not because anybody’s paranoid … but because we have examples.” Examples he shared included his experience working as an officer, and saying that “breaking the thin blue line” represented the best that police could do to change things.
The cameraphone “has leveled the playing field” against the dismissals by some that those injured and killed are not deserving of regard for various rationale. “Mike Brown wasn’t the biggest revolution in Ferguson, Missouri .. the biggest revelation in Ferguson, Missouri, was that citations were being used to fund the city …” If people aren’t taxed, there’s a budget shortfall, and there has to be some way to raise money, “so we go to our indigent populations, because they don’t have (the means) to be litigious about it … This is so much bigger than the police.”
Savusa, speaking next, observed, “There’s so much wisdom” in what Alexander had said.
She recalled Seattle’s vote years ago asking citizens about deprioritizing marijuana-related enforcement, calling it “groundbreaking,” and saying it’s time for more decisionmaking to be in the hands of the community – “how do we let the community help prioritize what it is that law enforcement is going to focus on?” – could prioritizing include “stop following black men who are walking down the street? … The conversation really has to shift, and when I hear (Alexander), I hear ‘really guys, let’s do something different’. We get stuck in our very inherently racist system because we don’t know anything else.” Trying something new is “how (you) build trust with the community … take a stand and do something different.” She said the community should be involved, not just asked to “review” things.
She also recalled her experience on the Highline Public Schools Board, saying that putting things before community members also made a difference there. “I loved coming to a School Board meeting and not having to have a fight – telling them what the issue is, what (the options are),” and working with the community instead of clashing with them, as they were “begging to partner in an authentic way. … You can’t go wrong if you create a space at the table for a community voice.” To tonight’s topic, “conversations with actual cops in the streets,” for example. “There are some wonderful cops out there asking, ‘what can we do differently?’ … When we’re aligning our values around strong families, strong communities, and equity, and we approach the conversation in a different way, we will come to a better, stronger result that is more inclusive of the community voice.”
Porter went back to the issue of de-prioritizing marijuana arrests. Alexander spoke of how it’s “a cross-cultural drug, so we continue to see these arrests, specifically for black and Latino males, and yet the (usage statistics) are equal – white men smoke marijuana, Willie Nelson is the face of it, but everyone who goes to jail for it is black, and that’s the ultimate irony, you have young men who go to jail and work in private prison industry to generate income (for it) and yet (on the outside) there are no jobs – where can 18- to 19-year-old males with low levels of education find jobs for $40, $50,000 a year? … Or you can go to 23rd (in the Central District) right now and buy marijuana from a white guy who’s a millionaire, and you have nothing to reverse the sentences (of people of color serving time for drug offenses).”
Lopez said the CPC had done a report on the disparate impact of marijuana sentencing, and then went back to the topic of police/community interactions – the “customer service” policy that Alexander had mentioned did not resonate with her to some degree because officers need discretion. “We have to be really careful about the words we use – ‘customer service’ is a way to lighten what actually happens.” She also noted that “black officers are overrepresented in SPD” compared to the community makeup, and yet “there are no East African officers.” She added that a huge package of reforms has just been approved by the CPC and will be posted online tomorrow; next Monday, a “status conference” is due in federal court, to look at how the city will be moving forward on reform.
A Q&A opportunity followed. Porter asked Levinson where the OPA stands, and she referred to what Lopez had just mentioned. She said it includes the mayor’s proposal to change the role she has held to an Inspector General role, as well as “a range of recommendations” she had made two years ago, reforming the discipline system “to ensure there’s a fair process.” She acknowledged Councilmember Lisa Herbold‘s familiarity with the issues (Herbold had arrived at this meeting after another event). She also noted “an inordinate delay in getting to this point … it’s been several years and we need to get on with it.”
(For the full Q/A, see our video of the full panel, above.)
Before the panel, the 34th DDs heard from three of the 7th District Congressional candidates, starting with the one its membership had endorsed, King County Council chair Joe McDermott, who just missed the cut to advance to the general election by placing third. He thanked the group for its support and urged its members to continue to work for his two signature issues, campaign-finance reform and gun violence:
Also at the meeting, the two candidates who are advancing to November, and both of them spoke too. Here’s what State Sen. Pramila Jayapal said:
And then, State Rep. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw:
No endorsement vote in that race tonight, but the 34th DDs did vote later in the meeting to endorse state Initiative 1491 (“extreme protection orders”) and city Initiative 124 (protection for Seattle hotel workers).
The 34th District Democrats meet on second Wednesdays, 7 pm, at The Hall at Fauntleroy; watch 34dems.org for updates.