What’s Going On With Seattle Police?

According to Twitter, Seattle Police are out of control. They’re arresting journalists right and left, harassing everyone they encounter, and relying on crowd control tools when polite conversation would suffice. Prior to creation of the CHAZ/CHOP police-free (but not weapons-free) protest zone, protesters managed to taunt police every night until they responded with pepper spray, flash bangs, and some rubber bullets. My friends, minus me, are in agreement that police should have been able to withstand the taunts much as the palace guards in London are able to be taunted and teased day after day without a blink. 

I, with my long history of taunting “suits” until they blinked, suspect that at least some of protesters would have done whatever they needed to do to get a reaction from the police. It seemed obvious to me that the entire point of the protests, at least at the edge of the East Precinct, was to draw police into responding in a way that would prove that they are out of control.

Peaceful protests occur when people get a permit, work out with the city where they will go and when (so police can be prepared to manage traffic disruptions), then gather as planned, give speeches, sign songs, chant, and shout slogans, then march, and at some point disband. We have this kind of protest all the time in Seattle. On occasion, disruptions occur; on occasion, arrests are made; but generally police have managed protests without a lot of ruckus because generally protesters behave. The work of making change occurs in countless meetings after the fact with people in positions to make change happen.

The 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd have been different. Most have been relatively peaceful, if taunting police is classified as peaceful. But large crowds have shown up over a period of weeks for marches and speeches in many neighborhoods. The dominant slogans have been “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” both great slogans. 

At some point in Seattle, planned, organized protests were replaced by groups showing up here and there, marching around town without permits, marching onto the freeway (until one protester was killed), generally doing whatever they wanted whenever and wherever. Even today, July 10 as I write, a much smaller group is blocking the intersection of Broadway and Pine. 

Inconvenient protest is a respected part of our history, so some people grumble, but most tolerate the inconveniences when they feel the cause is just. Also, images of the Edmund Pettus Bridge linger, even for those of us who weren’t there.

A few days into this summer of protests, demands began to surface. It is, after all, appropriate to ask for something as you’re making noise and disrupting traffic. Since the trigger for the street action was the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, the police have become the focus of the demands: Defund the Police! All across the country protesters are demanding that cities defund the police. Seattle protesters have found a willing audience in our city council chambers. 

It’s been ten years since Seattle’s equivalent of George Floyd. In 2010, John T. Williams, a respected, aging, hearing-impaired, perhaps intoxicated, Native American carver, was walking toward downtown holding a small carving knife in his hand. A patrol officer spotted the knife from his car, stopped, got out and ordered Williams to drop the knife. The video shows a man who simply looks confused, trying to figure out what the officer is upset about (my interpretation). Seconds later, the officer killed Williams. No one thought it was necessary. 

An investigation led to a civil rights complaint and involvement of the DOJ. Ten years later, SPD thinks it has made dramatic improvements. Officers are trained in de-escalation. All use of force is documented. All deaths in custody or officer-involved-shootings are scrutinized. Yet, citizens continue to voice concerns over disproportionate violence against certain demographic groups and disproportionate rates of arrests and incarceration. 

How have we come to the point that we are not allowed to mention the unlawful behavior that precedes use of force in most situations that become viral videos. Even though police killings most often occur when suspects are armed, we cannot mention the widespread access to weapons that put citizens and police alike at risk. Must police simply allow suspects with weapons to run away? Honestly, I do agree that use of force must be scrutinized and accountability must be improved. I just think the examples of bad police behavior tend to ignore bad suspect behavior as this would only complicate an otherwise simple focus.

Rather, we are encouraged to focus our attention on the trauma in the histories of people who commit crime, whether neglect, abuse, absent family members, disruptions such as time in foster care, etc. So when people plead with the city council to defund the police, they propose shifting the default response from sending armed officers to answer calls to sending unarmed people who have expertise in working with people who have experienced trauma. “Police don’t prevent crime; police don’t stop crime,” they say, which is simply untrue. But our council members just nod in agreement.

This week, the city council heard presentations from two groups, Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, who asked that even the fielding of 911 calls be taken away from the SPD. The rationale for this proposal is that currently the civilians – who take the calls, decide what kind of codes to assign to the incidents, and assign officers to respond – “think like police.” They want calls fielded by operators who are not part of SPD, and they want the city to empower NGOs (via contracts, I assume) to respond in lieu of police. Increasing use of Health One (SFD) and Community Service Officers (SPD), was pooh-poohed by the presenters as “one size fits all,” which is exactly what they are not.

I don’t doubt that there is a role for the many organizations serving various demographic groups in the city. And bravo for the frequently cited Cahoots program in Eugene. Seattle and King County actually have a variety of programs to respond to people with mental health issues already. Tinker with them if you must, move their funding around on a spreadsheet, but I am just not ready to dismantle the police force and divert funds to NGOs. Working under the scrutiny of the DOJ, many innovations have occurred in Seattle. Accountability is a focus of this work. Dare are I mention that the word “accountability” was not voiced with respect to the NGOs that are anxious to siphon off the police budget. Hmm. 

I’ve only begun to pay more attention to all of the information available about policing in Seattle. I know how dismayed citizens were when John Williams was killed over nothing. But I also know that many officers now take deescalation seriously. Yes, one might laugh at how naive we are to think it will always work. But of all the 911 calls that are answered, just a small percentage involve any level of force. 

It’s wonderful to have a goal of equity with respect to arrests and incarceration, but that truly will require work from many angles, not just policing. To focus all of our dismay and frustration on the SPD is misguided, in my humble opinion. We already ignore graffiti, shoplifting, littering, and a thousand other minor crimes in our effort to lighten up on policing. But the result (before the coronavirus) was loss of useful stores downtown and the avoidance of downtown by many citizens. 

Our current 911 service is both a city and a county-wide program. Operators with training and experience field a huge variety of calls, instantly channeling them to either fire, medics, or police. A dispatcher stays with the caller until help arrives. This is serious business and no place for amateurs. I’m stunned that the city council is seriously considering messing with this amazing service . I’m stunned that they actually have a goal of cutting the police budget by 50%, beginning ASAP. City coffers are depleted by the economic impact of a pandemic; cuts will happen, and they will hurt. But after listening to the budget hearings this week, I wonder if the council members have a clue as to how 911 works and what police do. Tackle accountability, put the screws to the Seattle Police Officers Guild if you must, but get a grip. This is not a game.

Meanwhile, you, dear citizen, might spend a few minutes on the links below. Skim a report or two, just so you know what’s been happening under the consent decree. Then, let’s pay more attention to our city council. They’re definitely in need of oversight.

Seattle Police Department website

DOJ Investigation of the Seattle Police

Official Website of the Seattle Police Monitor

SPD Use of Force Annual Report for 2018

Seattle Community Police Commission 2019 Annual Report

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