Northwest Tribes and Communities of Color Uniting to End Police Brutality

by Courtney Weaver 

What we need to get across in American culture is that nobody deserves to be shot. The astounding rate of police-involved shootings compared to other countries is mindblowing, 2015 saw more people shot and killed in the United States in a given month than most other industrialized countries over the last twenty years.

Police brutality is a huge problem in our country, one that disproportionately impacts the lives and communities of everyday law-abiding citizens. People of color are disproportionately affected,  with Native Americans and African-Americans being more likely to experience higher levels of police contact and violence than any other group. 

Here in Washington state, per-capita, Native Americans are 2.29 times more likely to be victims of police shootings than their white counterparts. Washington state’s Black population are 1.29 times more likely to be killed in an officer-involved shooting.

A higher frequency of police contact equates to a greater likelihood that a POC could be killed by law enforcement. The racial disparity in the rate of these interactions is a direct result of implicit and explicit bias— implicit bias is one’s unconscious prejudices while explicit bias is the individual’s conscious decision to exercise prejudice based on their own beliefs despite facts proving otherwise.

Washington’s law enforcement agencies fatally shot 27 people in 2016 alone. One of these fatalities occurred on January 28, 2016 when Tacoma Police officers shot and killed Puyallup Tribal member Jackie Salyers, 32.

Chester Earl, Jackie’s cousin, and fellow Puyallup tribal member has this to say about why law enforcement victimizes Native Americans more than any other community:

“Life in the reservation is a very hard life to live compared to the rest of the country. This leads to higher police contact which leads to higher police shootings of Native Americans.” Chester and his family continue to speak out and tell Jackie’s story despite their loss.

Chester’s cousin Jackie was one of the many unfortunate examples of this last year when two Tacoma officers allegedly drove up behind Salyers’s car without their lights on to apprehend her abusive boyfriend, Kenneth Wright. Kenneth was seated on the passenger side of Jackie’s car when law enforcement located him. The police report alleges Jackie accelerated towards them, however, the ballistics report reveals Jackie was shot at least once from the driver’s side door, implying that she was driving perpendicular to the officer’s vantage point, not towards.

The scene of Jackie Salyers’ shooting by two Tacoma police officers. [Photo courtesy of the Salyers family]

Her death has shaken the entire Puyallup tribe to the core. This tragedy has united and strengthened Chester’s resolve to end police brutality, “We continue to speak out to bring awareness to the larger problem that our citizens across the nation are dealing with. This feeds our spirits to fight for social justice to show that the police are not above the law and lends credibility to the trust between our citizens and our police officers”

Weeks later, after the autopsy was released, her family discovered that she was newly pregnant at the time.

At January’s Race and Police Brutality panel discussion that took place at Washington Hall hosted by Crosscut the need for accountability and justice was echoed across the board. One of the panelists, retired NFL player Riall Johnson, addressed the “comply or die” mentality that is a daily reality for people of color.

Johnson, who is Black, illustrated this by giving a first-hand account of his frequent interactions with law enforcement and border patrol. Every time he crosses the Canadian border he is instructed to pull over.

He shared an instance of attempting to remain calm and comply with an officer’s orders while having a gun pointed at his face. Fearful for his life, he narrated every move he made to the officer. “We hear what cops say, they say they won’t shoot you if you comply, they only say this after the fact, ‘Well if he had just done what we said, with a gun in his face,  if he actually did what he was told, we wouldn’t have shot him’… there is a blue wall of silence in law enforcement when they protect police when they do wrong. They don’t come to schools and say ‘Do what I tell you, because if you don’t I might shoot you.

The cognitive dissonance within communities of color was echoed by Sheley Secrest, who was also on the panel, “Education on police interaction is passed down in black families.”

The push for positive community engagement is a move both members from communities of color and law enforcement agree is a good one. At a recent Snohomish County NAACP event involving many community members as well as law enforcement officers I overwhelming heard that there is a disconnect between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Many in attendance shared that they were terrified of any interaction with law enforcement, “broken windows” policing and bias are at the heart of the matter. Both they and members of law enforcement at the event, expressed the need for de-escalation training and accountability are the first steps towards repairing this rift.

On August 1st, 2014 Seattle Transit Police shot and killed Oscar Perez Giron, 21, after a scuffle ensued when officers confronted him for not having paid the $2.50 fare on the light rail in SODO.

According to the internal police report, the three officers forcefully attempted to remove Oscar from the train when he allegedly reached for a handgun in his waistband. If this narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it is, what many of these shootings have in common is that the police believed the suspect to be armed, which is technically their right. As Riall Johnson poignantly stated at last month’s police brutality panel “The second amendment does not apply to me as a black man.”

Whether it was the brutal murder of woodworker John T. Williams in 2010 in Pioneer Square, the recent murder of Michael Layton Taylor (both police reports claim they were armed with knives) or the Ché Taylor police shooting one thing is clear— law enforcement’s duty to protect and serve their communities is significantly impaired when they are faced with communities of color. Officers must out-arm civilians and this fear-based decision making impairs their ability to make just and unbiased decisions that traumatize entire communities.

In instances where law enforcement has fatally shot a civilian, the family is not allowed to stay with their deceased loved one and must hand over the body to the very institution responsible for the death. The officer responsible is put on paid administrative leave, and the department is able to conduct its own internal investigation.

Last week President Trump began to take a series of steps to address crime and restore so-called “Law and Order.”  Right now both the Seattle City Council and in the WA state legislature are taking bipartisan steps to end police brutality.

Discussions on race, training and explicit and implicit bias are currently happening in committee hearings and town hall meetings across the city and state. The South Seattle Emerald’s own Cliff Cawthon reported on a statement made by the city of Seattle last week.

Washington for good policing is sponsoring two companion bills in the legislature HB 1529 and SSB 5073 which are both up for a hearing this Thursday in Olympia. We have an opportunity as a sanctuary city, county, and a state to raise the bar for the rest of the nation.

16780180_10211607695527403_221808163_nCourtney Weaver is a local blues singer, a domestic and gun violence survivor, and a violence researcher. She also enjoys peaches in her spare time.