In room 119 of William H. Gates Hall, Dustin Washington, of the American Friends Service Committee, took law students through the history of policing in the U.S. He had them reflect on the time when slavery was legal, when cops were first established as slave patrols. Next, he moved to the Reconstruction era, when police-enforced “black codes” were designed to keep freed slaves in servitude. Leaping forward a couple decades, he took students through the Jim Crow era to witness officers tasked with maintaining segregation.
Washington quoted New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s recent comment, “Many of the worst parts of black history would have been impossible without police.”
At a panel on Feb. 25 at the University of Washington (UW) School of Law, several key players in the ongoing saga of Seattle police reform discussed policing in communities of color as part of the university’s Diversity Week.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole was scheduled to be a panelist, but canceled. Bill Covington, UW law professor and Diversity Week coordinator, said he was told by police that a group was planning a “disturbance ” if O’Toole participated.
Seattle Police Department (SPD) spokesperson Patrick Michaud said O’Toole didn’t want her appearance to detract from the dialogue. On Feb. 3, a community discussion in West Seattle was halted when a woman began shouting at O’Toole.
“The chief is big on ensuring that people have their chance to speak,” Michaud said. “And if her presence at the community meeting is going to distract from the actual topic — if she ends up becoming the topic instead of whatever the goal was for the day, she will back out of it.”
Brian Maxey, SPD attorney, replaced O’Toole. Along with Washington, other panelists included Matthew Barge, deputy director of the Seattle Police Monitoring Team and Michael Diaz of the United States Attorney’s Office.
The panel’s topic of policing communities of color provided fertile ground: A nationwide wave of police shootings, some fatal, of black youth have spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, and there have been several allegations of police brutality in Seattle. As panelists spoke, chants from students participating in a university-wide walkout could be heard from the hallway: “Law and justice are not the same thing.”
“I think we are seeing the rise of a new Civil Rights movement,” said Covington. “I think it is centered around, among other things, policing in communities of color.”
Most of the panelists are directly involved in the implementation of a consent decree between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and SPD to reform local police policies — the result of a 2011 investigation that found a “pattern or practice of using unnecessary or excessive force” and a later federal lawsuit that alleged the department was not policing constitutionally. Diaz was the lead attorney for the DOJ, while Barge, as a police monitor, will eventually report to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington about whether SPD has come into compliance.
Maxey, attorney for SPD, said he believes the allegations in the DOJ’s report could have been brought against many other jurisdictions.
“I still believe the SPD is really no better and no worse than most other departments in other metropolitan cities across this country,” he said.
But Diaz said he sees a common thread in departments that receive consent decrees: A disconnect between police and the communities they serve and a lack of critical self-analysis.
“They don’t have the systems in place, essentially, to second-guess themselves,” he said. “Frisks, stops, uses of force: These are symptoms of broader issues.”
Diaz stressed that the SPD is in the beginning stages of the process of complying with the decree, but the panelists ran through several reforms that are evolving, including crisis intervention and implicit bias training, which helps participants understand and address the subconscious biases they hold. He said the department has made some good progress.
A police force, panelists said, should be guided by the community, reflect its values and have cops who are from the community — the force that moves away from a “militarized-enforcement” model toward a “service-guardian” model.
“I think too often it’s the case that the police officers, supervisors and civilians within the department don’t have a stake in the community they are serving,” Barge said.
Maxey said that leaving behind old-world models might include questioning what skills they want from new hires.
“For years, it’s been military experience,” he said. “Is that what we want? Are we looking for warriors, or are we looking for social workers and that type of thoughtful person who can be a problem-solver out there on the street?”
Transforming entrenched systems
Maxey said the department is asking the community to be open and honest about what it wants from its police. But as it stands, panelists said, lack of trust might prevent people from being truthful.
Barge said the ultimate sign of compliance with the consent decree would be to renew the community’s confidence in the SPD
But for two law students, O’Toole’s failure to appear undermined the theme of community involvement that ran through the discussion, and they pressed Maxey on the issue.
“The reality is that it’s a public official, coming to a public university, for a public conversation, and being unwilling to do that because they are afraid it is going to cause problems. It sends a clear message to the students who were looking forward to engaging,” said Erika Bleyl, who helped organize the law school’s walkout.
At the panel, Washington emphasized that it is deeply entrenched systems and structures, not individuals, that have to be transformed in order to improve relations between police and communities.
“We have to move away from the bad-apple theory,” Washington said. “I don’t know if we have a broad enough understanding that we still live in a very racialized society. Unless that drives our conversation, we’re going to be back at the table 10 years from now, having the exact same conversation.”