What do the 1968 Chicago police riot, the 1988 Tompkins Square Park police assault on homeless people in New York, the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and last weekend’s Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle all have in common?
If you guessed outrageous police brutality, you would be right, but there’s more. In each of these, police covered their badge numbers to intimidate, beat and tear gas protesters without consequence.
Seasoned activists know that when cops tape their badge numbers, that means you’re about to get your ass kicked. It’s the well-understood universal symbol of police vigilantism.
But now, covering badge numbers has become mainstream. And here in liberal Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best have defended the practice as a matter of established police protocol.
They’re not wrong. It is. And this is precisely the problem.
The “mourning band” came to local attention when Officer Jared Campbell was accused of macing a 10-year-old girl at the Black Lives Matter protest last Saturday. A recent aerial video reveals how police violence erupted quickly and without warning shortly after the protest began. She and others had no opportunity to get out of harm’s way.
Numerous witnesses report that Campbell’s badge number was covered, and that he chose not to respond when asked to identify himself.
Since then, a Change.org petition to fire Campbell has been signed by more than 160,000 people. On Monday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold revealed that, while the Office of Police Accountability is investigating the assault, Campbell was misidentified and not involved. More that 12,000 complaints have been filed with the OPA since Saturday.
The mourning band is promoted by the Officer Down Memorial Project (ODMP) and may be ordered from a variety of online sources. It’s a half-inch wide black elastic designed for placement over the center of the badge. There is also a “thin blue line” version that some police departments have banned as overly adversarial.
Section 3.170 of the Seattle Police Manual authorizes mourning bands as a means of honoring those killed in the line of duty. Both the solid black and thin blue line versions are allowed. The band is worn over the center of the badge, covering the badge number.
“Upon the death of a Seattle Police Officer or Seattle Fire Fighter,” the manual reads, “sworn personnel will affix the mourning band to their badge or wear the Honor Guard Mourning Badge. The mourning band/badge is displayed until the interment or memorial service is complete.” Employees may wear the band for up to 72 hours after the memorial service.
So, who died?
According to the ODMP fallen officer list and the SPD website, the last Seattle officer killed in the line of duty was Timothy Brenton in 2009.
Meanwhile, a database maintained by the Washington Post reveals that 59 persons of color have been killed by police in Washington state since Jan. 1, 2015. These include Che Taylor, Charleena Lyles, John T. Williams and Antonio Zambrano-Montes.
According to Chief Best, the band is currently being worn by SPD in honor of State Patrolman Justin R. Schaefer, killed on March 24 during a vehicle pursuit, and Correctional Officer Berisford Anthony Morse, who died on May 17 of COVID-19.
Since memorial services are not allowed under coronavirus protocols, SPD officers are permitted to cover their badge numbers until further notice.
Mayor Durkan and Chief Best have dismissed concerns because officers’ names are embroidered on the uniform, but with protective vests and other hardware that police routinely carry, this may or may not be visible.
With trust between communities and police at an all-time low, police all over America have adopted a known symbol of police repression as a means to mourn fallen officers.
How can Seattle police talk about community trust being “absolutely paramount” when this blatant form of intimidation is promoted from within and by top city leadership?
This is why the rage has boiled over: People of color are dying from police violence across America, and nothing seems to change that. America has collectively said “no more.”
Making thin excuses for toxic cop culture can only be seen as part of the problem.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more of the June 3-9, 2020 issue.