OPINION: Mayors’ Coalition for Community Safety Should Examine Own Police Departments

by Ali Cohen

At the close of 2021, the mayors of Auburn, Renton, and Kent met privately to discuss community safety and violence affecting south King County. Unfortunately, of all the initiatives and meetings that have since come from this coalition, none has publicly addressed the personal and systemic violence coming from their very own police departments.

A quick Google search will provide details on Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson killing Jesse Sarey while Jesse was unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis, as well as a paper trail of Nelson’s escalating misconduct without meaningful intervention. Instead, he won a “medal of valor” for a fatal encounter with Isaiah Obet in 2017. Obet’s family challenged the City of Auburn through a lawsuit; the city settled for $1.25 million in response. 

This and similar events energized recent police de-escalation laws, which have been wildly unpopular with police officers. In one case, police in Kent chose to not respond to a mental health crisis in a retaliatory attempt to manufacture outrage against accountability. The result was the potentially avoidable death of a community member. 

Simultaneously, the Renton Police Department chose to retain officer Trevor Davidson despite his small-businesses partnership with a member of an FBI-designated hate group. And Kent Assistant Police Chief Derek Kammerzell felt so emboldened by the culture of unaccountability that he comfortably displayed Nazi insignia in the public police headquarters. He was only given a two-week suspension. Kent’s mayor has since acknowledged that her administration badly underestimated the public outrage that would spring from the decision not to fire Kammerzell. While this honesty is to be applauded, the delayed insight speaks volumes to how out of touch municipal governments, particularly police departments, can be with the communities they are intended to represent. 

Our mayors have to understand that the culture and conduct of their police departments are the first link in what drives public mistrust in policing and the judicial system. When they don’t address our police departments’ glaring and public misconduct with the same tenacity they have when fighting for “community safety,” when they lobby against legislation and programs for police accountability, it lands as purposefully obtuse. It also undermines many of the equity-intended milestones and programs that, otherwise, would be so easily celebrated.

Take, for example, Renton’s Safe Place initiative, which encourages victims of hate crimes to locate safe places identifiable by rainbow police badge stickers around the community. Businesses designated by rainbow police badge stickers will then call none other than the police. This initiative launched at the same time the business relationship between Officer Davidson and the Proud Boys emerged through investigative journalism. The irony of asking a victim of a hate crime to potentially call a police officer who starts businesses with a hate group member was pointed out to Renton’s Mayor Pavone in multiple public comments but went unaddressed by all except Councilmember Kim-Khánh Văn.

In truly trying to “find a balance between restorative justice and the safety of our communities,” our mayors could further move the needle by simply looking inward. Systemic issues are complex and hard to address through a singular policy. When leaders argue that “pausing” a program like Restorative Community Pathways, a youth diversion program, improves community safety, it is intellectually dishonest. South King County suffers from unfortunately frequent violence and property crime. It also houses police departments railing against accountability and transparency. Both can be true; in fact, the relationship could be characterized as cyclical.

Abuse of power and protection has contributed to public mistrust, which in turn has contributed to the public divestment from our police departments. One of the most linear ways our mayors could address the precarious position of both community members and police officers is to simply stop hiring, retaining, and protecting trigger-happy, Nazi-insignia-displaying, hate-group-affiliated officers. 

In the meantime, community members should pay attention to Renton’s implementation of a new and promising Equity Commission. The commission, fully incorporated as a branch of Renton’s municipal government, was the brainchild and successful campaign of anti-racist organizations Renton Residents for Change and Renton -South King County Black Alliance. If implemented successfully, it should provide a crucial oversight and communication mechanism to disrupt the fortified silos and feedback loops our south King County mayors and police departments experience. 

Ali Cohen is Renton resident and administrator for a school providing alternative graduation pathways for King County youth.

Featured image is attributed to Shannon Kringen under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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