Election season in the middle of a pandemic and amid a racial justice uprising creates a unique opportunity to think about the impacts of the choices we make locally. Highly visible is the Seattle City Council attempting to figure out how to take some control over the disproportionate violence of the Seattle Police Department.
The Seattle Police Department, like so many police departments, has a long history of corruption. There was a particularly notorious scandal exposed in the late 1960s and 1970s implicating more than 100 police officers and the King County Prosecutor, Republican Charles O. Carrol. Like many incidents of police corruption and violence, in the end, there was no justice.
In 1955, the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Police Practices found a pattern of racial violence. It led to an effort for civilian oversight. There used to be “freedom patrols” that policed the police, following police around for over a year as a “walking review board” of police actions.
This did not resolve the systemic racist violence of the Seattle Police. In 2010, police killed John T. Williams, a partially deaf Native American man. This resulted in a federal investigation, oversight and reforms. In May 2017, an accountability ordinance was passed to create an integrated structure of community input and civilian oversight. This did not prevent the killing of Charleena Lyles.
Civilian oversight has not prevented the violence against protesters. Any doubt that the violence was about protecting power at the expense of residents was obliterated when white people held some sort of baptism festival in Cal Anderson Park: They did not experience the police brutality Black Lives Matter protesters experienced weeks earlier.
Close to a century of attempts to curb the corruption and racist violence of Seattle police have failed. It makes sense that defunding the police seems to be the only viable option remaining. The budget for the Seattle police is about $409 million (an increase of 20 percent in eight years). We have approximately 280 cities and towns in Washington with their own police budgets.
Police are only one part of the whole system that profits off policing and criminalizing our citizenry. According to 2019 Department of Corrections costs summary, Washington spent $725,872,470 housing people in prisons. This doesn’t include the individual county costs for jails. It doesn’t include the costs of prosecution and court staffing.
The money and entrenched institutions involved in our current criminal legal system are reminiscent of the past recession and the concept of being too big to fail.
However, in the context of criminal legal system, the question is: Is it too big to succeed? Are there too many jobs and too many moving parts dependent on people being arrested, charged and imprisoned?
Read more of the Aug. 19-25, 2020 issue.