by Tammy Morales
As the Martin Luther King Jr weekend kicked off at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Friday, community members and elected officials gathered to reflect on the work of the celebrated leader and ask the question: Are we there yet?
Mayor Murray spoke about the progress the Seattle Police Department has made. He reminded us that Chief Kathleen O’Toole was invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during the president’s State of the Union address, an honor bestowed as recognition for Seattle’s efforts to pilot body cameras and move toward community policing. He also acknowledged that there is still work to do and asked the audience to challenge him and the city council. “The city will continue to be a better city if you challenge us,” he said.
While it’s true that SPD is receiving accolades from Washington D.C. and other cities, closer to home, many community leaders are frustrated that no legislation has been passed at City Hall to make these reforms permanent.
Since 2012, the SPD has been under a federal court order to address issues of biased policing and excessive force. In response, Chief O’Toole implemented new training on de-escalation and the police union president declared that officers who outwardly resist attempts to change the culture and to adapt to these changes should find another job.
In November 2014, Mayor Murray promised to introduce a reform bill to city council by March of 2015. Yet, city leaders have still not introduced an ordinance to make the new police reforms permanent.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened in our police department three years ago because local civil rights leaders asked for more civilian oversight, more transparency and more accountability from our police department. Why has the public had no opportunity to have their voices heard by the full city council?
In order to build public trust, in order for the changes to have any significant meaning, they must have the weight of law, not simply be subject to personnel changes in leadership at SPD.
So, here is a challenge for our city leaders: Pass a comprehensive police reform bill in the first 60 days of this term.
Legislation has already been drafted.
Lack of action at City Hall prompted the Community Police Commission (CPC) to draft a police reform bill of their own last summer. Around that same time, Councilmember Bruce Harrell encouraged movement on the issue stating, “this is extremely time sensitive.” Six months later, the council has still not taken up a bill. Forty seven community leaders have signed a letter expressing frustration with the slow pace of change. Independent, civilian oversight seems to be the sticking point.
The legislation proposed by the CPC would establish the components of civilian oversight entities and outline the roles and duties of the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the OPA Auditor, and the Community Police Commission.
Incredibly, the council is now waiting for permission to introduce a police reform bill. In June, Judge James Robart, the federal judge overseeing the DOJ consent decree, declared that any legislation before council would have to first meet his approval. Judge Robart has rebuffed the CPC’s proposal to become a permanent entity and has prohibited the council from considering the bill as drafted.
All of this leaves the community asking an important question: How are we to hold our leaders and police accountable if there is no transparent way to participate in the decision-making? The public deserves to know how our police department will be monitored. We have the right to read the proposed legislation, attend public hearings and community meetings, and provide input about the kind of civilian oversight our community wants to see.
Why should the community care?
While it’s true that progress has been made at the SPD, all parties acknowledge that the work is not complete. In September I wrote that disciplinary procedures are still not being followed by some commanding officers and a recent Seattle Times editorial makes clear that trust between the community and the police has not been restored.
The foot-dragging creates an impression of lack of political will or worse – a disregard for the deeply felt betrayal some in the community experience. Historic patterns of racial profiling and abuse must be addressed with more than sunny declarations of progress. Changing the culture of an institution is hard work, which our communities acknowledge will take time. But the hard work must permit the community to shine a spotlight on policies and procedures – which is why an independent, civilian oversight agency is critical.
A new city council should bring fresh energy to policy-making. Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, the new chair of the committee on public safety, is a civil rights attorney who was directly involved in holding the police department accountable in a racial profiling case. There is reason to be hopeful, but the community must continue to advocate for civilian oversight.
Are we there yet? No. Our communities have experienced decades of excessive force from some Seattle police officers. Seattle residents must be confident that their police department investigates excessive force, tracks data coming from investigations, and is transparent about disciplinary procedures for rank and file officers and for commanding officers. Reform is happening, but only an independent, civilian oversight body with authority to subpoena will satisfy the community’s demand for true accountability. Only when these reforms are codified into city law will trust begin to be restored. It’s a high bar, but it’s a challenge the police department and our city leaders must meet.
Tammy Morales is a community advocate working for South Seattle neighborhoods.
Featured Image by Jeff Wilcox