by Guy Oron
South King County community members protested against police violence this past Saturday, April 24. Flanked by a car brigade and bike patrol, dozens of demonstrators marched in the rain along South Grady Way from Southcenter Mall in Tukwila to Renton City Hall, where they held a rally.
At the forefront of the protest were families impacted by police violence, who demanded their cases to be reopened. Families hope that the conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd could lead to local police officers being charged and convicted for murdering their loved ones. However, the legal system has historically made it difficult to prosecute—or even fire — cops who kill people, with only four police officers in the entire United States being convicted of murder between 2005 and June 2019. In contrast, the Washington Post estimates that U.S. police officers kill about one thousand people each year.
Organized by a coalition of anti-racist community organizations, the protest strived to show a united front against white supremacy across different causes. Joseph Todd, a co-founder of Renton Residents for Change and member of the Renton Antiracism Coalition, said the protest was dedicated to forging solidarity across different communities impacted by police and other racist violence. “We want to show solidarity with the Asian community, the Black community, and the trans teen community because we’re being impacted across this country,” said Todd.
At the rally, family members of people who have been killed by police spoke about why they wanted their cases reopened. Sarah Lacy, who was the wife of Cecil Lacy Jr., talked about her husband and his killing by a Snohomish sheriff and Tulalip police officer in 2015. Lacy said that Cecil Lacy Jr., who was a fisherman, youth bus driver and member of the Tulalip tribe, had already written to the Seattle Times about police abuse just days before he was killed. Lacy said that the investigation into her husband’s death was fraught with misconduct and lies. “We were fortunate enough to be able to have the world-renowned Dr. Bennet Omalu go over the coroner’s report and he was able to uncover evidence proving that the official cause and manner of death record was a lie,” said Lacy. “He ruled Cecil’s death a homicide by mechanical and positional asphyxia with 100% certainty. The investigation into Cecil’s death was full of lies, destroyed evidence and perjured testimony.”
Other family members of people killed by police echoed Lacy’s calls for justice. Maria Giron, mother of Oscar Perez-Giron, called for justice for her son and all other cases of police violence. Perez-Giron was killed by a King County Sheriff’s deputy after being removed from a Sound Transit light rail train for failing to pay fare. “On June 30, 2014, two dollars and fucking 50 cents, they cost Oscar’s life,” said Giron. “I’m fighting for justice. Justice for everyone! Justice for Oscar Perez-Giron! And we want all the cases in Washington State reopened, because everybody else deserves to have justice,” said Giron.
One case that is currently being prosecuted is the killing of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey by Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson in 2019. However, the trial has been delayed three times and Nelson is still employed at the Auburn Police Department. Elaine Simons, who is the foster mother of Sarey, spoke about her foster son at the rally. “Jesse was a funny and sweet man who loved breakdancing, wrestling, and Naruto,” said Simons. “Jesse was having a mental health crisis in Auburn. The police were called to de-escalate the situation, and at no time was a mental health response team called to check in on Jesse. Within 37 seconds of contact, while Jesse was chewing on ice sitting next to an ice machine, my foster was killed.”
In addition to calling for cases against police officers to be reopened, organizers of the protest demanded that the City of Renton address structural racism both in its police department as well as in budgeting and contracting. According to Todd, Renton police should not be in charge of responding to many crisis situations. “We want to divert funds from police, and actually start spending money on mental health and substance abuse [treatment], because you can’t be a police officer showing up to a substance abuse issue, or showing up to a homelessness issue, or showing up to a mental health issue with a gun, a baton and a stun gun,” said Todd.
The Renton Police Department has a documented history of violence. Over the past two years, Renton police have killed three people, including 43 year old Anthony Tovar, who was running away from cops when he was shot. According to a database maintained by the Washington Post, 175 people have been killed by police in Washington State since January 1, 2015. This averages to one person being killed by police roughly every two weeks.
Protestors also called for the firing of Renton police officer Trevor Davidson, who co-founded a business with a local leader of the white supremacist group Proud Boys.
In response to this crisis of police violence, families have organized together under the group Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA) to pass new laws aimed at advancing police accountability and preventing future police killings. In a press conference on April 25, the organization celebrated four new bills that were passed this legislative session and urged for more action both at the state and local level.
WCPA advocated for five bills in the 2021 legislative session, five of which were passed. These were: HB 1054, which sets new standards for law enforcement officers, including banning chokeholds, limiting tear gas use, barring the use or purchase of military equipment, and mandating more training; HB 1310, which redefines and limits what counts as acceptable use of force by police officers; HB 1267, which authorizes the creation of a new statewide office of investigations to investigate police killings; and, SB 5051, which makes it easier to decertify police officers who commit misconduct or violence. However, the fifth bill, HB 1202, which would give families who are impacted by police killings compensation for damages and attorney’s fees, was not passed.
Representative Jesse Johnson, who was the sponsor of HB 1054 and HB 1310, heralded these new laws as a meaningful step towards mitigating harm and advancing accountability. “These policies are going to save lives in our community and mandate accountability for every single police officer in our state,” said Johnson. “And we’re telling the people of Washington, particularly those in Black and Brown communities, that we see your humanity.”
At the press conference, Simons mentioned that her foster son would still be alive if SB 5051 had been in place earlier. Police officers like Nelson, who repeatedly commit acts of violence, could be decertified under the new law. Nelson had killed two people and injured others before he killed Sarey in 2019, yet he was not held accountable by internal police mechanisms.
While celebrating these legislative victories, WCPA members stressed that there was still a lot more work to be done, especially related to passing HB 1202 and directly supporting families harmed by police.
When asked about the defund police movement, families explicitly distanced themselves and their efforts from defunding while echoing similar sentiments. “We are not as eager to defund as we are to move some of that money away from just funding, police cars, mine resistant vehicles … armed drones,” said Fred Thomas, father of Leonard Thomas, who was murdered by a Lakewood police officer in 2013. “We need to put that money into mental health professionals. We need to move money to programs that work to heal and not kill.”
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based writer and journalist. His writing has been featured in the Nation, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!