Before Baltimore, There Was Seattle’s Dismal Police Reform

On August 30, 2010, John T. Williams was killed by a Seattle Police Department officer. The 50-year-old Indigenous woodcarver of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe was slowly crossing a Seattle street. He was hunched over, focused on a piece of wood in his hand. His other hand held a small pocket knife that he used for carving. He was not shouting, he was not threatening. Witnesses say that the knife was closed. He can still be seen, intently focused on the wood, on the video from officer Ian Birk’s dashcam. But within five seconds of Officer Birk encountering Williams, the officer had shot him four times.

It was that shooting (later ruled unjustified by the Seattle Police Department, even though Officer Birk would never face charges) that, after a long string of high-profile incidences of police brutality by SPD in recent years and a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice from 34 community groups requesting an investigation into systemic police abuses, initiated a federal investigation into the SPD. Before police brutality led to reform efforts in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore, the federal government found in their December 2011 report that the Seattle Police department regularly used excessive force in their policing practices.

The report highlighted stories of police abuse that included, in addition to the killing of John T. Williams, a female shoplifter being held down by officers and punched repeatedly in the ribs and face, the regular use of force at public protests like the WTO and Occupy protests, the pepper-spraying and beating of a nonviolent and mentally ill man by four officers, and the beating of a man who was unable to comply with police demands because he was asleep.

The department was put under a Federal Consent Decree in order to address these systemic issues. Over the next few years, a new “reform-minded” police chief — Kathleen O’Toole — was brought in by a new mayor — Ed Murray — who promised to work with the people and the police to increase police accountability and improve the relationship between the SPD and the community — especially communities of color.

Now, over four years later, Seattle serves as a sad example of how empty promises of police reform can be, and how easy it is for local governments to continue to abuse people of color and people with mental illness, even when the city has been ordered by the federal government to do better. And Seattle shows how quickly the rest of the country stops caring, once the protests die down and the news cameras go away.

***

“I don’t know if anyone in this room knows what it’s like to watch over and over again, dozens of times in these last two years, to see my people murdered in the street, gunned down in the street in the blink of an eye, without an ounce of hesitation from the officers. I want that hesitation. I want them to think, ‘If I screw this up I may go to jail.’ Because right now they know they won’t.”

This February, I was speaking on our local public radio station about efforts to change the law that makes it virtually impossible to charge police officers in Washington State in cases of deadly force. The current law requires prosecutors to prove that police officers acted with “evil intent” in order to even press charges. It is one of the highest thresholds to prosecution in the country.

The white male conservative panelist on the show with me replied, “There is a huge crime problem in many communities in America, mostly involving minorities. And the victims of crimes are often minorities as well, and I think that needs to be addressed.”

John T Williams
John T. Williams

This man was talking about black on black crime. He was using fear of that black on black crime to justify rules that made it impossible to hold officers accountable for their disregard of black lives. He wasn’t talking about crime in Seattle, though. He said “many communities in America,” knowing full well that Seattle was not one of those communities. Crime statistics from 2014 rank Seattle at 41st among U.S. major cities for violent crime and 62nd for homicide (out of 80 cities with a population of 250,000 or greater).

High crime rates do not justify police brutality — nothing does — but if you believed they did, the fear generated in order to justify such a high threshold for police prosecution is nothing more than a myth — a scary bedtime story.

A white woman on the same panel commented that we were lucky that we hadn’t had any major police killings yet. We weren’t Ferguson.

How quickly John T. Williams was forgotten.

***

In June 2016, the mayor of Seattle was threatening to bring in the FBI. Not to investigate crime or police brutality — to investigate journalists, on the grounds that their release of contract information was an “egregious breach of confidentiality that threatens to undermine the collective bargaining process.” The statement continued:

“The City is exploring several law enforcement options, including hiring an independent investigator to identify the responsible party and to determine compliance with City laws that require confidentiality in the collective bargaining process, as well as any potential criminal violations under state and federal law. The City is also in discussions about the investigation with the FBI.”

Negotiations between the city and the Seattle Police Department to implement the changes mandated by the Federal Consent Decree appear to be at a standstill. Mayor Ed Murray, who promised better and faster reform than his predecessor, recently declined to renew the contract of the only civilian oversight the SPD had in place — Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Pierce Murphy. The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) had strongly opposed Pierce Murphy’s efforts at reform, referring to him as a “Wolf in sheep’s clothing.” When Mayor Murray appeared to give in to the police union’s pressure to remove him, the SPOG celebrated it as a victory.

Many suspected that the removal of Murphy was an effort to curry favor with the police union in their negotiations with the mayor. But all we can do is guess, because, despite federal government recommendations for transparency in the police reform process, Mayor Murray has insisted that all reform negotiations with the police union remain confidential.

We got a glimpse of how the negotiations were going when a local journalist at The Stranger was leaked details from an anonymous source at the city. All indications from the leaked reports showed that the mayor had given the barest lip service to police reform. Police review panels would not be open to the public, the Civilian Oversight panel could only have “civilians” with at least 10 years of prior police experience, and the new contract would still allow for the erasure of written reprimands from police records and a statute of limitations on OPA investigations into police misconduct. The reforms that we had been waiting over four years for weren’t coming — not with this union, not with this mayor.

And Mayor Murray was very angry that the public knew about it.

In later messages and press conferences, Mayor Murray would refer to those in the city demanding transparency in the SPD negotiations as “Union busters,” adding that he would expect this sort of behavior from people like Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin who faced a recall effort due to his decimation of unions (a decimation which he, quite ironically, exempted the Wisconsin police force from).

The SPOG ultimately rejected the negotiated contract with the mayor last month, balking at any citizen oversight on the citizen review board — even if those citizens were retired officers with 10 years of police experience. When the union failed to approve the contract, the mayor blamed the failure on The Stranger for leaking the negotiation details.

***

In July 2016, I was back on the same local public radio station to discuss how efforts to make it easier to prosecute police for killing civilians had failed. I was angry. Since my first appearance on the show in February — when I stressed how important it was to be able to hold police accountable for their actions, and how the lack of accountability would embolden those officers who do not believe black lives matter — we had witnessed dashcam footage of Seattle Police killing a man of color.

On February 21, Che Taylor, a 46-year-old black man, was shot to death by SPD officers in his car with his hands up. The police stated after the shooting that they had spotted him earlier with a handgun, and he was known to them as a felon prohibited from owning a firearm. In the video we see officers approach Taylor as he exits his vehicle. He puts his hands in the air at their command. When they tell him to get on the ground and he moves to do so, suddenly there is a flurry of gunshots fired at Taylor — seven can be heard. There was no gun found on Taylor, but one was later found in his car by officers.

Che Taylor's brother Andre Taylor, at center, speaks at a news conference to respond to Seattle Police Department's Sunday fatal shooting of Che Taylor, Tues., Feb. 23, 2016, in Seattle. Che's nephew Kylynn Taylor is at left; Che's mother Joyce Dorsey is at right. (Credit: Seattle Times)
Che Taylor’s brother Andre Taylor, at center, speaks at a news conference to respond to Seattle Police Department’s fatal shooting of Che. Che’s nephew Kylynn Taylor is at left; Che’s mother Joyce Dorsey is at right. (Credit: Seattle Times)

When it was later discovered that the gun found on Taylor was purchased by a former King County Sherriff’s Deputy, no announcement of this finding was made by SPD — even after a formal investigation was opened on the former deputy. The shooting of Che Taylor has been ruled justified and the police involved will not face any discipline, even though the investigation into the origin of the gun that was used to justify Taylor’s shooting has not been completed.

***

When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot and killed by police officers in July, Mayor Ed Murray was forced to give a press conference. The recent shootings, combined with the recent reports on the lackluster reforms the mayor was negotiating with SPOG and the removal of OPA director Pierce Murphy, had angered a lot of Seattle residents. Online, a petition had circulated encouraging people to call the mayor’s office and insist that he renew Murphy’s contract and halt plans on a new North Precinct building. After a few days of being inundated with calls, Murray held a press conference.

Mayor Murray reassured the city that black lives matter in Seattle, as he talked about how important it was for the city to address systemic racism. Murray promised that the new director of OPA would be the “strongest in the history of the city.” But when asked about adding more transparency to the negotiations with the police union, Murray balked and once again referred to those who would demand transparency as “union busters” like “Scott Walker.” Murray didn’t discuss the North Precinct building and brushed off concerns over a new $210 million youth jail (which would likely hold a disproportionate amount of children of color, as do the other youth detention facilities in Washington state) as a county issue, something he isn’t involved in. Not once in the conference did Murray mention Che Taylor.

***

This past Wednesday morning I found myself at Seattle City Hall, documenting a protest against plans for a new north precinct — or, as many protesters call it due to its large size and “blast-proof” design — The Bunker. At an estimated $160 million, the new precinct headquarters will be one of the most expensive in the country. While the city and Seattle Police Department have been unable to agree on any of the much-needed reforms to combat the documented abuses of the police force, they do seem to have been able to agree that one of the safest big cities in the country needs a new, heavily militarized headquarters. The vote on the new precinct is being held in a few days, while one of the City Council’s most vocal opponents of The Bunker, Kshama Sawant, is out of the country and unable to vote against it.

Bunker protest
Seattle Bunker protest

For over an hour, dozens of Seattle residents stood to voice their concerns over the new bunker. Some questioned the message that this would send to the city when the negotiations over police reform hadn’t concluded. Some questioned why the city would build one of the most expensive precincts in the country when the money could go to help the city’s ever-growing homeless population. Some asked how providing space for more armored vehicles was supposed to increase public trust in the police department. City Council member Debora Juarez dismissed concerns, stating she’s “not afraid of a building.”

After the comments on The Bunker concluded, one of the pro-precinct commenters began to sexually harass a woman of color who was against The Bunker. She yelled at him and recorded his actions on her phone as he made lewd comments and gestured to his genitalia. Security was called, not to talk to the white man who had been sexually harassing the woman of color, but to remove the woman of color for being too loud in her protest of the harassment she had just received. When she refused to be quiet, when she insisted that they should be removing the man who had harassed her, instead of her, the police were called. Four SPD officers arrived in mere moments.

As this woman tried to explain to a police officer that they should be going after the man who had been harassing her, a police sergeant stood with his hand on his gun. Someone in the crowd asked him to please take his hand off of his gun when talking to a victim of harassment. The sergeant laughed and said, “It’s just a place to keep my hand.” He patted the gun and then rested his hand on it again.

***

The same day of the City Hall protests, police reform recommendations from the civilian Community Police Commission finally cleared important legal hurdles of the complicated federal process. These recommendations for reform would now be sent to the federal judge assigned to the reform process, James Robart, for his review before being forwarded to City Hall. The CPC is the only voice for the people in this police reform process — and as inefficient as it is, it’s considered a luxury.

Most of the other states across the country currently under federal consent decrees don’t have anything like the CPC to make recommendations on the community’s behalf. Many of the CPC’s recommendations are seen as critical to true police reform, (including civilian involvement in the police disciplinary process, independent watchdogs, increased transparency, and the open negotiations with the police union that the mayor has fought so strongly against). Members of the CPC have had to threaten to resign in order to be taken seriously by judge Robart, and he has greatly hampered their ability to participate in the review process. The CPC had hoped to get their recommendations into legislation a year ago, before the mayor’s negotiations with SPOG, but further federal delays will cause any legislation from these recommendations to be pushed out to 2017 at the earliest, which may be too late to have a measurable impact on the changes that are adopted. Once judge Robart is satisfied with reforms, he will disband the CPC — even if they aren’t satisfied.

All indications are that when the negotiations between the city and the SPOG are completed, the agreement that emerges will be far short of what is necessary to seriously address the bias and abuse that is endemic in the Seattle Police force. Yes, there will likely be body cameras, and the police are now increasing their de-escalation training and tracking use of force where they weren’t before. But there is unlikely to be any real civilians on the civilian oversight board. Whomever is chosen to replace Pierce Murphy as OPA director may well be less reform-minded — as Murphy’s efforts could have cost him his job. Laws which prevent prosecutors from pressing charges against cops who kill civilians will continue to embolden and protect murderous cops until changes can pass in state legislature or via state ballot. A new heavily armored precinct will likely be approved to further separate the cops from the community they are supposed to serve and protect.

The protests of Seattle residents, and the petitions and the calls to the mayor’s office, do not appear to be having a lasting impact on the mayor’s negotiations with the police union. Seattle, with its documented police abuse and its now almost five years under federal consent decree, has a strong chance of looking almost identical to Seattle before federal investigations.

In President Obama’s final State of the Union, he held up Seattle as a model for police reform. Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole sat near Michelle Obama during the event. Much of Cleveland’s reform process is now being modeled after Seattle’s. But this shining example of police accountability has left vulnerable populations in Seattle feeling as unsafe and unseen as they were when John T. Williams was shot and killed six years ago.

If Seattle is any indicator of what Baltimore and Cleveland have in store, residents should prepare to spend a lot of time and a lot of money, for not a lot of change.

***

Lead image: flickr/Dave Conner

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