Seattle Police Officer in full regalia
King County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Cox
Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowke

Ferguson, Seattle and a cop named Steve Cox

By Ricardo A. Guarnero

White Center is probably the scruffiest neighborhood in the greater Seattle area. Unincorporated and sitting just an avenue from Seattle, it is the orphan child of the law; in other words, at night and most days as well, it is the place to buy heroin, meth, a girl, a boy, a gun and it is on the corner of 16th Ave. SW and Barton Avenue, where on any given day, you stand a good chance of watching someone get shot. Don’t get me wrong, very many good people live here, but so do a lot of very bad people. There is a reason that they call it Rat City.

Around 2004, my partner and I, decided to open up a cafe — Cafe Rozella — with the purpose of running a community-oriented coffee house and helping to revitalize the area. Between the addicts, the dealers, the gang-bangers and the prostitutes we faced our share of challenges. But, the community supported our efforts. And, instrumental in clearing the area of crime was a Deputy Sheriff named Steve Cox. Standing 6’4” and barrel-chested, Cox was the embodiment of John Wayne. He was fearless but he had a mission, to help clean up the community in which he grew up. That all ended on a Saturday night, December 2nd 2006, when a pathological killer, shot Steve Cox in the face, before killing himself.

Steve Cox was not your average cop. He had been raised in the community, so he not only cared about it, but he knew it well. He went to law school and became a prosecutor. And mid-career, he decided he would rather be a sheriff’s deputy in White Center than suit and white shirt lawyer. He specifically requested the White Center assignment. He was a force of nature. Working with deputies who deeply trusted and respected him, Steve started making a difference, but not in the usual ways. Anecdotes abound. Once he got a call about a young woman who was caught shoplifting at a drugstore. He responded and took “Cindy” out to the cruiser. He asked her, “why are you doing this?”

“I’m broke Steve, and I needed to do something.”

Steve said, “get in the car.” Instead of driving her to the station, he drove her home and pulled out $40 that he gave to her. “You’ve got a child Cindy, buy some food and I do not want to get another call, cause next time, I’m bringing you in.” And this was typical of Steve, he cared about the community and he also knew all the bad guys by name.

After his death, things changed. We had to rely on the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for any assistance. Since, we were on the Seattle side of the White Center border, we had no choice on who was doing the law enforcement. Cox had given me his cell phone number, so anytime we needed help, even if it was just a bunch of hoodlums hanging out in front of our cafe, we would call and he would be there immediately. SPD insisted that if there was anything wrong we should call 911. The dispatchers at 911 are not in the habit of giving out the cell phone number of the Seattle police officer who might be on duty at the time. Plus, they would not dispatch unless you had a bona fide crime to report. Even then, they would only show up if they had two squad cars and four police officers. A simple traffic violation resulted in, at least, two squad cars, often more, treating the situation like a gangland style shooting. In sum, they had no organic connection to the community.

And when SPD showed up, they would treat us as potential threats. They always showed up wearing black gloves and kevlar vests. Our cafe was a gathering hole for community activists. One of these activists was a carpenter named Russell Parks. Russell had a great sense of humor and was loved by most in the community. A gang had tagged the Walgreens by our cafe. Russell called the cops and insisted they needed to do something to address the problem of gang violence. For his insolence, Russell got thrown onto the pavement face-first and eventually, cuffed and charged with assaulting a police officer. He plead guilty in exchange for his freedom.

Nobody trusted or liked the SPD. Things had not always been thus, but in 1999, the City was placed under martial law after things turned violent during the WTO protests that became legion. Community policing was out and they needed a new, more aggressive chief. So they appointed someone who would tow a much harder line. His name is Gil Kerlikowske and he went on to serve as the drug czar for President Obama.

I had an opportunity to interact and view Kerlikowske’s brand of justice. Upstairs of the cafe was a very mean and violent individual who attracted all kinds of criminal cockroaches. Upset that I would not allow dealing, prostituting or other unlawful activity within eyesight of the cafe, he came down and stood in front of the cafe, calling me out. I knew he carried a knife and I also knew that he would not hesitate to kill me. So I locked down the cafe and called 911. I described what was happening, but was told that as long as he was not actually breaking into the cafe or beating me, no crime was in progress. I protested, “if I come out, he’s going to kill me.” This went on for 50 minutes and never did a police officer show up. Later, I learned that when I called, 6 p.m., was also shift change and it was policy not to send out officers at this hour.

As it happened, Kerlikowskie was scheduled to speak at a White Center community safety meeting the following week. I showed up and duly raised my hand. I recounted what had happened and requested copies of the 911 tapes. Chief K tried to brush me off, but I was insistent that we needed on answer as to whether SPD was there to serve and protect White Center? Kerlikowskie’s lieutenant stepped in and said they had already started an investigation into the matter and hence let’s proceed to the next question. Chief K and his lieutenant both gave me a look of hatred.

The harassment started almost immediately. Our outpost, which had never seen a meter maid, was suddenly awash with SPD golf carts ticketing anyone for any parking violation they could find. The liquor control board started showing up at all our cafe functions. And prominent at our music nights were officers dressed in black with no insignia. One day, a cop car pulls up and walks directly to our liquor license and takes down the number. Next week, I get busted in a sting where the Liquor Control Board shows up and sends in an underage male to order a beer. Public Health shows up repeatedly. Cops circle the block but with no apparent intention other than surveilling the cafe. Patrons complained.

What had once been a joint effort by law enforcement to root out crime in White Center had become a nightmare of perpetual harassment. We lost business. Crime rose. We were afraid to call 911, lest they try and pin something on us — such as they did on Russell Parks.

I wish I could say this was one rogue lieutenant sending out his goons to quiet us. The reality is that a culture of distrust and brutality had taken over the Seattle Police Department after Kerlikowske took over. The actions of the SPD were so blatant that the Justice Department launched an investigation and put the SPD in the same category as the New Orleans police, notorious for brutality and corruption.

After a thorough investigation, the Justice Department issued a lengthy report and concluded as follows:

Our investigation finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing.
Use of Force – We find that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of using unnecessary or excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 14141. Deficiencies in SPD’s training, policies, and oversight with regard to the use of force contribute to the constitutional violations. Officers lack adequate training or policies on when and how to report force and when and how to use many impact weapons (such as batons and flashlights). We also find that, starting from the top, SPD supervisors often fail to meet their responsibility to provide oversight of the use of force by individual officers. Command staff does not always provide supervisors with clear direction or expectations of how to supervise the use of force.
Discriminatory Policing – We do not make a finding that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, but our investigation raises serious concerns on this issue. Some SPD policies and practices, particularly those related to pedestrian encounters, could result in unlawful policing. Moreover, many community members believe that SPD engages in discriminatory policing. This perception is rooted in a number of factors, including negative street encounters, recent well-publicized videos of force being used against people of color, incidents of overt discrimination, and concerns that the pattern of excessive force disproportionately affects minorities. This perception can significantly undermine the trust necessary for SPD to conduct effective policing in minority communities. The City and SPD need to thoroughly examine the issues raised, address the policies, procedures, and training that contribute to the problem, and conduct more sustained and effective community engagement.

Despite its reputation as a liberal city, Seattle’s leadership consistently obstructed any structural reforms recommended by the Justice Department. As in Ferguson, Missouri, the problems were deep rooted and structural. It took a change of administration in 2014, when a new mayor dismissed the old police chief and brought in a reformer.

I was so relieved to see Justice acting to bring truth to the fears that I and others in the community had. We were not knee-jerk anti-cop activists. I saw first hand how, SPD morphed from a run-of-the-mill big city police department to one overrun with a sense of occupying force that needs to keep the population in check.

As you can see from our interaction with Deputy Steve Cox, we were not antagonistic to law enforcement. We wanted to clean up White Center and we wanted to work the officers assigned to the area. But when the officers designated to protect you, actually view you with fear and distrust, the enmity becomes mutual. If this could happen in politically correct Seattle, I cannot imagine how horrible it must be for minorities, the poor and the disenfranchised of less progressive communities, who must fear the near unlimited authority of the police.