by Erica C. Barnett & Paul Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Seattle Mayoral candidates Lorena González and Bruce Harrell faced off once again on Sunday during a public safety-focused forum hosted by the ACLU of Washington and moderated by Sean Goode, the director of the Seattle-area youth diversion nonprofit Choose 180.
The forum was a chance for the two candidates to get into the weeds on issues like police oversight, union contracts, and the logistics of civilian emergency response.
But anyone looking for detailed, specific responses to questions about these issues — not to mention the City’s use of the King County Detention Center, plans to increase or decrease Seattle Police Department (SPD) funding, and under what circumstances police should use lethal force — might have come away disappointed.
Still, the forum did highlight significant differences between the candidates’ overall approach to public safety and policing and their level of comfort grappling with thorny issues like police defunding. While Harrell has said he would hire more officers and González has said she would cut the size of the force, neither gave many specifics about how they would reach those goals.
González said she has no interest in a “carte blanche increase in SPD’s budget,” adding that her plans for funding alternatives to police aren’t about “hiring more officers of a different kind” — a slap at Harrell’s statement that he would “build a new kind of officer” at SPD and field new teams of unarmed officers, similar to SPD’s existing Community Service Officers.
Both candidates said they would support additional officer training — in González’ case, “increased training around deescalation to prevent violence in the first place,” and in Harrell’s, “extensive retraining” to “change the culture in the police department.” González described Harrell’s training plan as “having officers watch a video of George Floyd’s murder and sign a pledge to do better” — a reference to his campaign promise to ask “every sworn police officer in Seattle to watch the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and voluntarily sign an open letter stating: The Inhumane Treatment of Fellow Human Beings Will Not Be Tolerated In Seattle.”
Harrell’s belief in anti-bias training runs deep — during this and earlier debates, he pointed out that he sponsored a 2017 ordinance requiring officers to undergo the training. The law, he said, also required the collection of data on showing “who was stopped, who was frisked, who gets tickets, [and] if there’s racial profiling occurring.” González, who voted for the legislation, said that “passing the ordinance didn’t result in a less biased police force” and argued for shifting funds toward alternatives she argued will lead to “true community safety,” like programs that focus on early intervention, youth employment, and neighborhood economic development.
The two also differed strongly on whether the consent decree — a decade-old agreement between Seattle and the U.S. Department of Justice that places a federal judge in charge of overseeing reforms to SPD — is an “obstacle” for elected officials trying to divert money from the police department to alternative public safety programs.
From González’ perspective, the federal court’s oversight has become more onerous and less useful. “The City is now required to send most of our police budget changes to the court for approval, and I don’t believe that’s what the consent decree was originally intended to do,” she said. Harrell initially offered a one-word answer to Goode’s question about the consent decree — ”nope” — but when pressed to elaborate, he commented that he doesn’t “see it as a barrier or a strength — it’s just the letter of the law.”
Harrell began the virtual forum by showing viewers a black-and-white photo of his childhood baseball team, saying, “These men … are the fathers and mentors of the Black community.” He followed up during the forum with two more photos — one of himself and his friends in college, including one who “became a Seahawk,” and one of his father “in the 1960s, when I was born right here in Seattle.”
In several instances, Harrell seemed to suggest that because he grew up in Seattle (unlike González, whose parents were migrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington) and because he has Black sons (González has a mixed-race daughter) he has “skin in the game” that his opponent lacks. “While I appreciate my opponent’s answer, this is personal for me and my family. I have two Black sons that have been in the city their entire life. And so when I hear this information [about police brutality], it is not anecdotal for me.”
González didn’t counter this suggestion directly but pointed to her work as a civil rights lawyer working on behalf of victims of police violence and the fact that “I have lost family to police violence. … And I want to work towards having a city [where] parents don’t have to fear if their Black or Brown babies are going to come home tonight.”
Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.
Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
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