February 18, 2009
Vol: 16 No: 08

Feature

Parents, NAACP slam P-I for pictures

By Adam Hyla / Editor

The cop and the photo op

A front page story on anti-gang policing in the Seattle P-I Feb. 9 angered Yolanda Bell. An online photo essay showed a picture of her son speaking with a police officer.

Photo by Michael Weinhardt / Contributing Photographer

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The movie ended and the four boys left the theater and walked onto the street. It was 9:30 on a Saturday night outside the Columbia City Cinema.

A man called from the open window of a car parked in an alley. Where are you from? he asked. The Central District, one boy replied. I doubt that, said the man who was sitting in the driver’s seat of a black Seattle Police gang unit vehicle, the Central District’s too expensive.

Come over here, the man told two of the boys. He got out of the car. What’s your street name? he asked one, who had none. What, he giggled, you don’t have any street cred?

He asked about their haircuts: What do they mean? And the color of their clothing: Why are you wearing so much gray? Two men with cameras got out of the backseat. They snapped pictures while the officer, the kids recalled later, began to pose. The cop, his partner, and the photographers got back in the car. They left.

The movie they had seen was Taken, a thriller about a man losing his daughter and fighting to get her back. On the sidewalk afterward, too, things were taken: photographs. And, adults would say later, a measure of respect.

A grandfather came and picked the boys up. “We just got harassed by the police,” is what Yolanda Bell remembers her son, Chris, telling her when he got home.

Bell told him not to stress about the pictures; the cop, she reasoned, was a professional, and the pictures were probably only of him, and even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be used indiscriminately.

Then, on Monday, on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, came the headline: “Officers patrol front lines of Seattle’s deadly gang problem.”

And, on an accompanying photo essay at seattlepi.com was Bell’s son and his cousin, Emmanuel, 13, on the sidewalk in Columbia City with officer Adley Shepherd.

Three things alarmed Bell, her mother, Janiece Jackson, who is also Emmanuel’s foster parent, and the leaders of the Seattle-King County NAACP, who they contacted that day.

One: People would construe that her child, great-grandson of the former pastor of the Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church, was in a gang.

Two: That the real gangbangers would see the photo, with its caption describing two kids from the Central District on a South End street and conclude what Officer Shepherd had suspected, pitching her son into a neighborhood rivalry.

Three: That Officer Shepherd had treated these kids as bit parts in his own heroic beat-cop narrative.

Bell, a self-confessed worry wart who rarely lets her 15-year-old son get around town on his own, took a copy of the article and dissected its contents, reading reporter Casey McNerthney’s story about the ride through the South Precinct that night. It mentioned that Shepherd was raised by a single mother.

“What does he think I’m going through?” she says.

Early in McNerthney’s description of the events of the night, she points out the words If handled wrong, the situation could have turned deadly in seconds.

“What these gentlemen don’t understand,” she says of the reporter, the photographer, and the cops, “is that the situation has been handled wrong, and it’s been deadly for years.”

James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County NAACP, has requested a meeting with P-I management over the article.

At Bell’s request, newspaper staff took down the photo of her son the day after the article’s publication. P-I reader representative Glenn Drosendahl wrote an email to Bell and Jackson saying that, while the story did not explicitly state that Chris and Emmanuel were gang members, “in deference to how others may see it and to your request, we are taking the photo off our Web site.”

“A family member explained what was going on there,” he told Real Change, “and we were receptive to their concern.” The men with the cameras were following accepted journalistic practice, he says, in which any person out in public is fair game.

Bell, Jackson, and the NAACP’s KL Shannon note that other young people’s pictures are still online, and by implication they are being described by one quote, from Shepherd, about nine gang-related fatalities last year: “All the killings around the neighborhood, they’re all connected to our little knuckleheads.”

“He owes this young man [Chris] an apology and the other three boys an apology” for the incident outside the theater, says Shannon. “And he also owes the community an apology. What he did lacks integrity.”

“It lacks professionalism,” adds Emmanuel’s foster parent Jackson. “He used them as a stepping stone, to show the community, [which is] complaining that the police aren’t doing their jobs behind the shootings, and he’s stepping on these kids to show that they are.”

Bell says Officer Shepherd has already changed her son: “They have defamed his character and his pride and changed his demeanor.” As they passed a police car three days after the incident on the way to a meeting with the NAACP, she notes, he sat up straight in his seat and watched the car go past.

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