by Carolyn Bick
Joseph Todd has been pulled over six times in as many months this year. Every time he’s pulled over, he says, the law enforcement officer inevitably asks the same question.
“He pulls me over, pulls me to the side, and the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘Is this your car?’ And my answer, once again [is], ‘Yeah, it is,’” Todd recalled, describing his most recent interaction with a state trooper.
Todd, a Black man, is the City of Tukwila’s Chief Information Officer, but he lives in Renton. Todd said he doesn’t speed, and he certainly wasn’t guilty of what the officer accused him of doing most recently: driving without a seat belt on.
“[After he pulled me over,] I took my seat belt off so I could reach over and get my registration and everything out of the glove compartment, and then he proceeds to tell me he saw my seat belt flapping in the wind,” Todd said. “In my car, if my seat belt isn’t on, it pulls itself back into the wall of the vehicle.”
Todd suspects it’s a case of racial profiling: the highway between Tukwila and Renton has historically been part of the “drug highway” between Washington State and California, so troopers are constantly on the lookout for what Todd calls “inconsistencies” in people driving cars. But, at the end of the day, the troopers are “saying you’re basically a drug mule, and you’re driving drugs back and forth through this corridor.”
“And the only reason I know that is because I work at a city, where the police chief and I talk about this kind of stuff all the time,” Todd said.
Fellow Renton resident Homer Haynes, a 67-year-old Black man, is also no stranger to racial profiling, even at his age. Though he no longer frequents what he calls “hot spots,” he’s still followed by security guards at different stores.
Recently, Haynes said he was followed by a security officer at Fred Meyer, while shopping there late one Sunday night for some jumper cables. He had his little four-year-old granddaughter with him, but, otherwise, his hands were free. He wasn’t carrying a big, empty bag, didn’t have a large coat on, and wasn’t wheeling in a trolley — three things that could easily conceal stolen merchandise.
Haynes’ granddaughter ended up being the only reason he didn’t make a scene.
“I left the aisle where the automotive [area] was to go over to the main aisle towards the checkout people. By that time, the police officer had made his way back to where I was,” Haynes recalled. “He saw me, I spoke to him, and then after I spoke to him he made a quick detour down one of the aisles, bent over as though he was shopping for something, then turned around and went right back to the front again. So, the way I took that was that he was there looking for me. He wanted to see what I was doing.”
While the experience Todd described happened with a state law enforcement officer, he said there have been plenty of other similar situations he’s both experienced and witnessed with Renton police. What happened to him and to Haynes aren’t anomalies, Todd said. They are facts of everyday life for Black people living in Renton and have been happening for decades in a city that prides itself as a leader on race and equity.
Still, it was the recent murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police that pushed Todd and Krysta Strasbaugh, a white Renton resident, to start Renton Residents For Change (RRFC) a little less than two months ago. Though young, the group already has concrete ideas to start making real changes in Renton through a variety of proposals, including the addition of explicitly anti-racist language to areas of city policy. Otherwise, Todd said, it’s not clear that the City of Renton is trying to move away from the legacy of systemic racism that underpins every city and town in the country.
“We are speaking to the tinderbox that is the environment that we aren’t addressing that, at some point, we’ve got to address across the board in both the system and … the police department,” Todd said.
The group, which consists of a handful of Renton residents — most of whom are Black — has been presenting its ideas at Renton City Council meetings almost since its formation. It has established four pillars that Todd said are designed around the issues the group expects city leadership to take seriously in all areas, not just policing.
Two of those four pillars are budget transparency and citizen oversight. Though not specifically aimed at the police, RRFC believes that greater budget transparency can help identify areas where more funds can be allocated towards solving systemic racial inequities. For instance, Todd said, there are certain perks for police officers, such as take-home cars. He said that the Renton police have passively nixed the idea of things like body cameras, specifically citing a lack of funds. So why not use the money spent on these cars on body cameras instead?
“They are not prioritizing stuff like [body cameras]. We know body cams work, for both the police officer and … the resident,” Todd said.
Moreover, if Renton had a citizen oversight committee specifically for the Renton Police Department (RPD), RRFC believes there would be a more equal power dynamic, and it would be easier for both citizens and police officers to understand and become invested in each other.
Having a citizen oversight committee would also make it easier to implement the third pillar, which revolves around mental health — if Renton citizens and the police could work together. Too many times, Todd said, police are sent out to deal with a person having a mental health crisis — and, most of the time, what that person needs is a social worker, not a police officer with a gun. He pointed to Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), a program based in Eugene, Oregon, that provides crisis intervention using social workers to check on people who are having mental health problems.
“They meet them at a visceral level, and they engage them at a level of help and support. A human level, not, ‘I’m here to shove you in a jail cell, or take you to a hospital, where you don’t want to be,’” Todd said.
Besides, Todd said, he would rather the police focus their time and energy on things like actual crime prevention.
RPD’s Public Information Officer Commander David Leibman said in an email to the Emerald that the RPD has “been approached by many, many individuals and organizations who have offered their ideas and opinions regarding changes at the Renton Police Department and in law enforcement in general.”
“The thoughts, opinions, and demands have been wide ranging. We are actively listening to the feedback and using our social media, inclusion groups, and community programs to engage the Renton Community in an effort to have useful discussions on law enforcement in Renton,” Leibman’s email read. “At this point, with so many entities offering ideas, it would not be fair to everyone else to single out our interactions with only one.”
Leibman also said that the department has been involved with the city’s Inclusion Task Force, and that it has “a long standing relationship with the Renton African American Pastoral Group,” as well as a team of Community Program Coordinators whose job it is to “design and implement a wide variety of community outreach activities.”
Liebman said the RPD’s website doesn’t have “robust” information on the program coordinators but offered for the Emerald to get in touch with one of the program coordinators for more information.
With regards to take-home cars, Liebman said that studies have shown take-home cars “save money in the long-term, as well as improve the department’s responsiveness,” and that the department does “support body cameras and hope to move forward with them once the current financial situation stabilizes.”
Liebman said he didn’t have immediate access to the studies that went into the RPD’s proposal for the take-home car program, and offered a list of studies from a Google search, instead.
But RRFC contends that it’s not just the police that need reform. Black residents also face racism in other areas, such as schools and housing.
Lylia Nichols is a Black nurse and mother who lives in Renton and belongs to RRFC. She and her son moved to the area in February. On her 11-year-old’s first day of sixth grade, there was a fight on the bus, and the bus pulled over to wait for the police. No one called Nichols to tell her why her son wasn’t home yet. She only learned what had happened when she called the school — and even though her son wasn’t involved in the fight at all, Nichols wasn’t allowed to pick him up.
“My son came home that day, and he said, ‘It’s a bit overwhelming,’” Nichols remembered. “I said, ‘I know, we just need to give it another try. They had police there, because you’ve got to be safe.’ And he was like, ‘But nothing’s even wrong. Why are the police at school?’”
The next day, Nichols’ son’s backpack was stolen. She said she reported it to the principal, but felt as though little regard was given to her complaint.
Soon after, she got a waiver to transfer her son to an out-of-district school.
One of Whitney King’s two daughters has also experienced racism at school. Twice, two different classmates called her daughter the n-word. King said this same daughter was also treated with disproportionate aggression by two teachers at a Renton elementary school.
But King, who lives in a Renton Housing Authority (RHA) apartment building with her two daughters, and works as a personal chef, said that she and her daughters have lately been the target of racist aggression by a white neighbor. She said these incidents started about a month-and-a-half ago, when the woman claimed the family’s dog was going after her young son.
But this didn’t track with King, since her daughters keep the dog on a retractable leash that they pull in when others are around. King said she tried to talk with the woman, who then whipped out her mobile phone, frantically jabbing at the buttons to call 911. King said the woman claimed that King was coming after her, and that she was afraid for her life.
Though the police did not show up, King was rattled and upset. The last thing she wanted was to deal with the police — “not really what I want, being a Black person.” The incidents have continued, too, with the woman claiming that King’s older daughter spat on her; and King’s daughter telling her mother that, when she passed beneath the white neighbor’s window, the woman allegedly made a slitting motion across her neck.
King said her daughter has no reason to lie, and though King herself has brought these incidents up to the building manager and to the RHA, she said nothing has been solved.
A staffer with RHA said in an email to the Emerald that she couldn’t talk about RHA tenants.
Members of RRFC say that it’s these sorts of stories that prove their points. Not only is Renton not as progressive a city as its leadership would like to believe, but it also needs reformation in more than just the structure, organization, and implementation of policy within its police department. This is where specific anti-racist legislation and the group’s fourth pillar — representation — comes into play, the group says. If the city makes it harder for racism of any kind to go unchecked, it’s more likely it will begin to stop happening.
To that end, RRFC and other members of the public have pushed the city to delay a vote on the Resolution to End Structural Racism, because they feel as though it’s simply not enough. Both Strasbaugh and Todd said they worry Mayor Armondo Pavone doesn’t fully understand the scope of the problem. Their concern was only heightened after Pavone’s comment in the July 6 Renton City Council meeting, in which he said the city’s work against racism was “basically … all erased in eight minutes.”
“Renton was not doing well, until 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I was getting pulled over before George Floyd had a knee on his neck. My son was getting pulled over before George Floyd had a knee put on his neck,” Todd said. “I was being followed around in Walmarts completely before George Floyd had a knee put on his neck.”
And while RRFC’s suggested changes in policies might not make an immediate difference statewide, and wouldn’t necessarily make a difference in how state law enforcement act, the group contends that by implementing these reforms, Renton can truly hold itself up as an example for positive change.
But Todd, of course, also has another reason for wanting to see changes, beyond his fellow Black residents’ safety. His son has also been pulled over.
“One flinch, one move that appears to them that we are doing something they didn’t ask us to do can turn into a bullet in your chest,” Todd said. “And just because of who we are, it escalates.”
So far, neither Todd nor Strasbaugh have seen the kinds of direct speech and commitment to change RRFC and so many other Renton residents want to see. Todd and Strasbaugh see this as avoidance.
“It’s all this rosy speech around inclusion and making people feel like they are part of one team, one community,” Todd said. “When you shy away from saying outright, and painting these rosy statements, it doesn’t have the effect you’re looking for. At least, the effect that I am looking for. The effect that I’m looking for — and I’m sorry —”
Todd’s voice suddenly breaks.
“The effect that I’m looking for is so that my kid can go out at night, and I don’t worry about it,” he finishes, tears audible in his voice.
It’s a while before he can speak again.
Featured image: Lylia Nichols, right, takes a selfie with local youth at a Black Lives Matter rally hosted by Renton Residents for Change at Liberty Park in Renton, Washington, on July 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Lylia Nichols)