A plan for creating a structured collaboration to improve police and community relations in Seattle was announced at a public meeting last Tuesday evening (Feb. 7) in Seattle University’s Campion Hall ballroom. The Office of Public Accountability Review Board (OPARB) introduced Jay Rothman of ARIA Group, an Ohio organization that teaches collaborative conflict resolution, to outline the plan.
ARIA consultants have been praised for their role in healing painful divisions between the Cincinnati Police Department and the city’s black community. The group started working with Cincinnati after it exploded in riots in 2001 due to what many viewed as excessive use of force by racially biased police officers. Ten years later, police-community relations are better because of an ARIA approach called Community Problem Oriented Policing, or CPOP, that has been up and running for a decade.
The Seattle crowd's reception for the collaboration plan was far from warm. A City Council member says the plan has yet to win endorsement locally, and has been met with little enthusiasm.
At the meeting Tuesday night, retired Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher told the audience that as head of the police department at the time he had strong doubts that a conflict resolution system like ARIA's could succeed in his city. But he gradually became convinced of the worth of establishing some kind of process by which police and civilians would work together routinely to solve problems as they came up.
Chief Streicher's conversion began, he said, during a Cincinnati public meeting about a decade ago. A police officer stood up to say that when there were crimes in the African-American community, neighbors generally refused to help him solve them. “You don’t tell on each other,” complained the officer. In response, a young black man stepped up to the mike and countered: “When you cops do wrong, you don’t either.”
In Cincinnati now, Streicher said, “Everyone can hold everybody else’s feet to the fire.” An oversight board of seven citizens who have received some training in mediation governs the process. It's been critically important to create “a place to go where you can ask for answers” every time tensions between the police and the community rise, and where all sides then join in a discussion with the goal of resolving disagreements.
It's important because, said the retired chief, police are “the most powerful public organization in the USA. They are licensed to use force; they can deprive you of your freedom.” Unless they're held accountable, “they may have a tendency to push what they can do legally into what is illegal.”
The Seattle audience reacted to ARIA with skepticism bordering on scorn. Such feelings were unintentionally given free play by the meeting's leaders, who failed to clearly establish the context and purpose of the discussion at the start.
Rothman did not present what he had learned about Seattle in conferring since last fall with a broad range of its residents, including the signers of the complaint to the Department of Justice about the city's police. Instead, he showed the 150 or so people who attended a PowerPoint of the ARIA process in Cincinnati. It appeared that when the audience didn't hear about the broad pattern of problems in Seattle that Rothman had distilled from his conversations here, they felt a natural need to speak out about issues that were already the basis of his report.
The board should have done a better job of preparing the audience, conceded OPARB member and spokesperson Dale Tiffany. “If there’s a problem in the community and people are upset, if you call them together you’re going to get venting and frustration.” People feel frustrated by issues of timeliness, transparency, and independence in reviewing complaints about police misconduct, he said. “They want some fast action. They’re tired of process.” OPARB should also have stressed that the ARIA model's outcome is “an agreement that has teeth, that is built in a collaborative fashion that includes the police and the community and is not top-down.”
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