I finally felt some relief. Almost 20 years have passed since my brother, Herbert, was murdered by Seattle police, and we struggled to bury him. For almost 20 years, we felt we had no voice or community. So when, at my instigation, the city council passed legislation in 2022 to create an Affected Persons Program (APP) workgroup, I felt we would finally be able to bring some level of aid and representation to those most affected by police violence.
The APP was inspired by a program that has existed in Ontario, Canada for a decade. It is intended to give victims and families a voice and agency in creating a first-of-its-kind office in Seattle, dedicated to providing resources and support to the people most affected by police violence. After conversations with families like my own, who either survived police violence themselves or lost a loved one, it became apparent that many of our ongoing and often overlooked needs intersected.
Needs such as long-term support for victims and families like that of Jaahnavi Kandula. Kandula, a 23-year old student from India, who was senselessly hit and killed by an SPD cruiser driven by officer Kevin Dave back in January. Seattle Police Officers Guild Vice President Daniel Auderer and President Mike Solan were caught on bodycam footage mocking her murder just hours after it had occured. Support for these needs could include burial and funeral fees, attorney and private investigator fees, travel expenses for out-of-state and overseas family members, mental health resources, childcare costs and assistance navigating often re-traumatizing bureaucracies. The APP workgroup, which was meant to center and be led by affected people, would examine all these forms of support and more. However, disappointingly, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and mayor’s office ultimately created more disenfranchisement, silencing and exclusion of affected people.
The city pays millions in legal fees and damages in cases where police officers brutalize and murder community members. And it offers nothing to victims whose loss and trauma was created by those city employees — Seattle police. It recognizes its moral obligation to support victims of gun violence, but makes an exception should the victimizer be a cop. This shameful disparity was to be addressed by the APP workgroup, which was meant to begin meeting this past January — ironically days before Jaahnavi Kandula’s murder.
As we mourned yet another murder at the hands of SPD, we received countless delays from OPA Director Gino Betts, who held the workgroup funding. Betts gave the excuse that they had issues hiring and assigning a project manager, although they already had $50,000 for the first year’s funding.
More time passed and we learned that an unofficial meeting was held without affected people to discuss a cap on the number of us admitted into the workgroup. In this meeting, the definition of an affected person was also discussed without anyone belonging to that group present. This completely disregarded the fact that the definition had been made plain in hours of public comment, phone conversations, emails and Zoom meetings.
Some of us were able to join a second “unofficial” meeting, again scheduled by OPA Director Betts, that mostly included city employees and non-affected community members invited by his office. Silence fell over the attendees when I pointedly asked if there was anyone in attendance who took issue with the workgroup being led by, centering the voices of and being mostly composed of affected people. Unfortunately, it did not deter more offensive suggestions by Betts and other non-affected attendees to discuss, yet again, a cap on the number of affected people in the workgroup as well as an unnecessary and obstructive examination of the definition of affected persons before any work could begin.
After six months of delays by OPA, we were told we could move the funding for the workgroup to the Seattle City Council general office. As we were waiting for the transfer, the city council office then abruptly advised us that the funding was being blocked by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office. We were told that the mayor’s office wanted to control the workgroup and would be adding two members of the federal monitor’s team, despite prior clear communication, even written into the legislation, of the importance of the workgroup’s independence from the Executive. The mayor taking control of the funding gave his office inappropriate decision-making power at the continued exclusion and expense of affected people.
Our last update from the mayor’s office was on Sept. 27, when we were advised that they are now assigning the federal monitor to review “the concept of an affected persons program in preparation of an assessment of Seattle’s police accountability systems, including OPA, OIG, and the CPC.” Despite us previously expressing the importance of the workgroup’s independence from these three entities. This furthered the exclusion of affected people who wrote and helped pass the legislation and who were meant to be put front and center of the workgroup.
Affected people do not need those with a conflict of interest to decide on how best to address the harm their bureaucracies, policies and employees create. We are the ones who bear the brunt of a lack of access to resources and support. We should be the ones to lead and be centered in the conversation on what we need to begin to heal.
We are now working on introducing a second amendment that allocates $100,000 in 2024 for an APP workgroup for this year’s Seattle city budget that would steer it back into the hands of affected people. This is a chance for the city council to address the material harms created, not only by police violence but also from a year of needless bureaucratic delays. It’s a chance to actually center and listen to victims and their families — it’s a chance for hope.
Castill Hightower is an activist whose work is rooted in uplifting affected families and survivors of police violence.
Read more of the Nov. 15-21, 2023 issue.