Families of Gun Violence Victims Weigh in on Police Chief Search

by Carolyn Bick

Robin Cockerherm just wants a police chief who is honest, and who listens to and acts on behalf of the community – not just someone who gladhands and smiles for the camera.

“Do it because you really care, not for a show,” Cockerherm said. “[We need] somebody that’s going to be trustworthy, and organic to their job … Somebody who is going to be real. I think that would be awesome for Seattle, and something that is needed in the communities.”

Cockerherm is the cousin of the late Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by police in June 2017, after she called the Seattle Police Department to report a burglary at her home in Seattle. Lyles was pregnant. Her autopsy later showed she was shot seven times, including twice in the back.

It is this kind of police violence Cockerherm and her family attended the March 14 meeting with Mayor Durkan to address. In the sit-down conversation with the Durkan at Seattle Vocational Institute in Seattle, Washington, the public was invited to give their feedback about what the city should be looking for in its next police chief.

Durkan was part of a panel of several other city leaders, including representatives from De-Escalate Washington, a group that focuses on teaching police de-escalation techniques and providing mental health response training, and brings issues of race and gender identity to the forefront of the conversation around law enforcement and officers’ approach to the public. The multi-racial group recently spearheaded the passage of I-940, which removes language from the current law that makes it almost impossible to charge police officers with wrongful death.

Cockerherm wasn’t the only attendee to lose a family member in a police shooting. Most of those in the audience who spoke that evening had lost a loved one in the same way. Marilyn Covarrubias, the mother of the late Daniel Covarrubias, talked about how her son was on his way home when police shot him in a lumberyard. Daniel Covarrubias had just been released from the hospital, because he had been suffering hallucinations, and was hiding atop a stack of lumber. According to police, Covarrubias allegedly reached into his pocket, prompting the officers to open fire.

Marilyn Covarrubias told Durkan that she wants the new police chief to treat their officers as she does her own children: when they do wrong, she punishes them.

“I want a police chief that can determine that within his department, and know that, sometimes, they do wrong, and to hold that in consideration, when they go forward, not just side with the police because they are police,” Covarrubias said. “We have to do the right thing.”

Alexis Dunlap is the mother of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, who was shot dead by police in January 2017 at his Des Moines, Washington, home. She told Durkan she didn’t understand the culture of demonizing the victims of unnecessary shootings – as though those killed “are responsible for their deaths.” In addition to putting an end to the lies she said surround the victims of these sorts of shootings, Dunlap said that “the killing of Black people, of people of color, minorities – it just has to stop.”

“There needs to be more compassion, there needs to be a little hesitation, as far as using deadly force. You need to know that that is deadly force. Is it absolutely necessary? Is there another way to de-escalate the situation, and, if there is, that needs to be used,” Dunlap said. “I will never be the same. My life will never be the same.”

Andre Taylor, center, opens a community discussion about the next police chief at Seattle Vocational Institute. [Photo: Carolyn Bick]
Jay Hollingsworth (tribal name Westwind Wolf), of the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut, attended the meeting to represent the family of John T. Williams, a Nuu-chah-nulth tribe woodcarver killed by police in 2010, when police mistook Williams’ carving tool for a deadly weapon.

Hollingsworth echoed Dunlap, asking why police are always taught to shoot “center mass,” or at the middle of people’s bodies – an often lethal tactic – rather than learning to use non-lethal force against people who are not armed with guns.

“What I am rising to talk about is an alternative policy, that the future police chief will work with the community and the police division on a different solution on shooting … I am sure Charleena Lyles’ family would prefer that they use some other force than a firearm, and certainly John T. Williams’ family feels the same,” Hollingsworth said. “Meeting lethal force with lethal force has always been the mantra. That is [the police’s] go-to action. But we want to give them an alternative.”

Durkan responded that she believes “the culture is shifting” within police departments, and that community voice can help change how the community and the police deal with each other. She said she understands that officers need to be trained to respond properly to situations, rather than simply out of fear.

“If someone’s in crisis … be able to respond to them in a way that de-escalates the situations,” Durkan said. “And that is the focus of training. We are committed to continuing these relationships, and I think we’ve got to build it out. We’ve got to listen to community.”

She also said the city’s children are a vital part of the shift in law enforcement response.

“We’ve got to change the dynamic and culture in every part of this city, so that every child feels valued,” Durkan said. “Valued in their home, in their school, in their neighborhood, by the police, by their parents, and they have to know that this city – we mean something when we say they have opportunity.”

Jay Hollingsworth, whose Mohegan tribal name is Westwind Wolf, speaks during Wednesday’s community discussion about the next SPD Chief. [Photo: Carolyn Bick]
Though Andre Taylor said he is grateful for political support, he wanted to emphasize that the community should not rely on top-down methods for change. Two years ago, after his brother Che Taylor was shot and killed by police, Taylor formed Not This Time, a group that focuses on reducing police violence and providing communities and families with support and safety. Taylor also works with De-Escalate Washington and highlighted its recent victory in passing I-940. The initiative started at the grassroots level, he said, and that’s where future victories will come.

“A lot of things that we want changed start with us,” Taylor said. “The first step is to depend on the genius we have in our communities. … We must first recognize the greatness within us.”

Featured image by Carolyn Bick


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