Mayor Mike McGinn could easily have just issued a statement about the prosecutor’s decision in the John T. Williams case. Instead, he held a press conference Wednesday (Feb. 16), and allowed Native American and other activists to join in the discussion.
There could have been a good case to be made for McGinn waiting two weeks before discussing the prosecutor’s decision not to bring criminal charges against Seattle Police officer Ian Birk, who at that point Wednesday had yet to resign but was presumably going to be fired after a disciplinary process. Then, McGinn could have stood beside Police Chief John Diaz, let Diaz announce the dismissal of Birk for the multiple failings cited by a unanimous police shooting review board, and spoken freely. McGinn could have counted on receiving some credit for the chief’s action.
As it was, McGinn had to restrain himself from saying exactly whether he thought Birk should be dismissed, for fear of creating some legal nightmare in which the city would have wound up stuck with Birk back on the force (something that might have frightened as many police as common citizens wondering if they might be stopped by him). The situation made for awkward moments as McGinn responded to press and activists’ questions.
His media reception was decent but hardly anything to lift the mayor. Publicola’s Erica C. Barnett quickly posted a good, straight-forward story, briefly catching McGinn’s frustration with the lack of accountability, activists’ criticisms, and the thanks he received from one activist for being allowed to attend. A Seattlepi.com video focused on McGinn’s opening statemen — fair enough, and informative, but McGinn is rarely if ever as good reading a statement as he is simply talking. A well-edited Seattle Times video captured a good range of the activists’ concerns in quick, intelligent fashion. One brief McGinn snippet is quite good at capturing the sense of public concerns; in another he comes off fair, but perhaps a bit defensive as one woman complains that he is being a rather disinterested politician.
But McGinn is a believer (to a fairly reasonable degree anyway) in facing issues and talking about them, and he chose to hold a press conference, admit members of the public, and expose himself to criticism. He handled himself with credibility, took the criticism from activists in stride, and addressed their concerns respectfully.
To be sure, there was some of the political game-playing you might expect from a mayor. He seemed to be trying to have it both ways on Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s decision, reading a statement that emphasized understanding “the frustration and anger that the public feels.” And McGinn’s theme throughout the discussion that followed was frustration over the drawn-out process behind any disciplinary accountability.
But when a reporter finally asked him directly about Satterberg’s decision and whether the prosecutor could have brought charges, McGinn said, “I think it was a pretty tough set of standards … that he was operating under.” That was an honest enough answer, but one still had to wonder whether a desire to send signals to his liberal base might have kept McGinn from acknowledging at the start that the decision not to charge Birk had little to do with his frustration.
On a difficult day of demonstrations, lengthy legal documents, and continuing sorrow about Williams’ death, though, McGinn tackled a whole range of issues with a good degree of directness. He said he wanted changes to the disciplinary process to come out of negotiations with the police guild (but avoided specifics out of respect for ongoing negotiations). He praised the dedication of officers but said the police department is no more immune from the unfortunate effects of racism than any other parts of society. He promised cooperation with the Justice Department in what is now a preliminary review of the department’s civil rights practices, saying that the goal would be improvements for the department, the community, and relations between the police and the public.
McGinn also managed to be warmly supportive of Diaz without getting into any typical Seattle talk about the chief doing some sort of super job. “I appreciate and support all of his work,” McGinn said. Asked twice if Diaz had met his expectations, McGinn said it was an interesting question. “We have a long way to go together,” the mayor said. He seemed to be setting a high bar for himself and his whole administration, at once supporting Diaz, thanking him, and pushing the chief, himself, and the police department toward improvements.
On top of that, the city had a mayor willing and able to subject himself not just to the questions of reporters but to the queries and occasionally heated statements of activists on a particularly difficult day. He didn’t try to pretend he could move as fast as the activists would want, but he made a case for them to work with him and the police toward better days.