Durkan must choose a new police chief and address the ongoing problems of excessive force and racism
By Cliff Cawthon, Contributing Writer
Now that the election is over and Mayor Jenny Durkan has settled in, what can we expect the new administration to do about police brutality? Every day across the country, new examples of police misconduct are coming to light. Here in Seattle, in 2011, the United States Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department had engaged in the unconstitutional practice of using excessive force. In 2012, city hall entered in a consent decree with the federal government to eliminate the unconstitutional practices. That process is ongoing. All this has cast Seattle’s “progressive cred” into question.
When asked directly about how far the mayor would go to reform the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Durkan’s spokesperson Kamaria Hightower says, “[T]he reforms required by the consent decree created a foundation for lasting change, [though] the job of reform is never ending.” Part of that reform, according to Durkan, was her recent executive order that mandated a review of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative because of the “reality that policing has a disparate impact on people of color.”
In July, that disparate impact was all too evident when SPD officers murdered Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, a 5-foot 3-inch tall, 100-pound, African American mother-of-four. As The Guardian wrote, the SPD “treated a victim as a suspect.”
The SPD’s Review Board’s recently ruled that the shooting of Lyles was “justified” on the grounds that the officers had “acted appropriately in investigating Lyles’ report of a burglary at her apartment..and the review board found that they reacted with appropriate use of force.”
In September, Merrick Bobb, the independent monitor who is overseeing the implementation of the federally-mandated consent decree briefed Seattle city council and indicated that we still have a long way to go as a city.
Morales: Will the key factors of racism and bias in policing be addressed?
Tammy Morales, a commissioner with the Seattle Human Rights Commission (SHRC), says, “We haven’t had a chance to fully implement [the decree] yet. [The SHRC] supported the reforms and supported, particularly, the reforms that were put forward by the Community Police Commission,” a citizen board created under the federal consent decree. She adds, “I don’t know if even all of those things [in the decree] address the key factors particularly racism and bias in policing. We just have to wait and see.”
Enrique Gonzalez, one of the three co-chairs of the Community Police Commission (CPC), had a cautiously optimistic tone about the new administration. “We have not directly [corresponded] with [the mayor], but we have with her staff.” Gonzalez noted that Durkan has voluntarily engaged CPC members as advisers in the new selection of a police chief.
Yet back in 2013, then-U.S. Attorney Durkan was criticized for marginalizing the CPC by telling them that “their role was limited.” At the time, she added, “You don’t own the community…you are not the only people getting community input.”
Now, the new mayor states, “I will work with and listen to all recommendations [from the CPC]. A central element of the reforms I worked so hard for is more robust accountability to the residents of our city, which is why I will work to implement the new [police] accountability legislation that the CPC helped to author.”
CPC’s Gonzalez says, “There are some areas that are pretty specific, [for instance:] the status of the [police-accountability] ordinance. We also want to bring up the work that has yet to be done on secondary employment.”
Secondary employment refers to the practice of police officers working for private employers during their off-hours.
In September, former Mayor Tim Burgess issued an executive order that planned the creation of a civilian body inside SPD to manage police officers’ secondary employment. Says CPC’s Gonzalez, “[W]e have yet to see how [Durkan] will carry that out.”
Burgess’ plan has received push-back from to the Seattle Police Officers Guild and Seattle Police Management Association.
CPC’s Gonzalez says, “Our position is that police officers still need to be held accountable while not working for their supervisors at SPD. How do you maintain that credibility and accountability while still using their credentials as officers for their secondary employment?” He adds, “It’s not about taking opportunities away from officers, it’s about maintaining the level of accountability that we want to see in the SPD.”
“Right now, public trust [for the police] in many communities is damaged—and in others it’s non-existent.”
SHRC’s Morales suggests that the city needs to set a higher example when it comes to accountability by implementing things such as “human rights’” training.” She says, “Right now, public trust [for the police] in many communities is damaged—and in others it’s non-existent. I would like to see leadership coming from the mayor and city hall. Officers have the responsibility to treat everyone with respect.”
In both commissioners’ case, they are looking forward to pursuing relationships with the mayor’s office. It’s “a blank slate,” says CPC’s in the words of Gonzalez.
Since Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has resigned, the mayor must also choose a new police chief. In a statement, Durkan describes the values that will be central going forward. “The chief must be committed to continuing to build an accountable, diverse department, focused on meaningful and lasting reforms—not only the reform process that is underway but also has a vision that reflects the fact that reform and improvement is continual process. For us to rebuild and continue to build trust within our diverse communities, we cannot go backwards on reform.”
At this point, as the commissioners indicated, people are waiting to see whether Durkan will stay true to her pre-election pledges to work alongside community members and to commit to police accountability.
Or will police officers remain unaccountable as we prepare to go into the King County prosecutor’s April inquest into Charleena Lyles’ killing?
Questions, comments, tips?
Cliff Cawthon is a freelance contributor to Outside City Hall. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition, nor does he speak for the organization. George Howland Jr, longtime independent Seattle journalist, is his editor at Outside City Hall. Cawthon is a south Seattle-based educator, organizer, politico and writer, originally hailing from Buffalo, NY. He’s currently an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Bellevue College. Cawthon has been working in politics for the last 15 years. For the previous four years in Washington state, he has worked, most notably, as a workers’ rights and housing justice organizer and leader. He’s been involved in major campaigns, such as the Fight for Fifteen in Tacoma and statewide, and the Seattle Progressive Income Tax. In his down time, he’s the Co-Chair of the Tenants Union Board of Directors, a Commissioner on the Seattle’s Renters Commission, a freelance writer and a community radio host on Rainier Ave. Radio. He holds an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.