Reforming a large and complex department like SPD is a difficult task in an average year. With hundreds of thousands of interactions with the public, police officers are by far the most visible government employees. And – because we give them the authority to arrest and even use deadly force when necessary – one of the most highly scrutinized.
But 2013 will be no average year. We are embarking on what can only be characterized as a mayoral lottery election. The filing deadline is still months away and eight candidates have already declared. It’s getting hard to keep track of them all. In such a crowded field, being recognized for a signature issue is critical to establishing yourself as a candidate. This is where SPD and reform efforts are in real danger of being held hostage: Political posturing and competitive press releases are struggling to be heard above the din.
Already, in response to Councilman Bruce Harrell’s announcement that he’s joining the fray, Councilman Tim Burgess has called for the removal of the police chief. Harrell, who has been a critic of the SPD, has advocated things like body cameras for officers. Burgess, who does not want to surrender his place as law enforcement expert to Harrell, seems to be guarding his flank in much the same way he captured the arena issue from the mayor. (Following the announcement of the Sacramento Kings ‘sort of deal’, it was Burgess who called press to Key Arena, capitalizing on the mayor’s absence in D.C.)
SPD will undoubtedly be a signature issue in the campaign. I predict that the annoying “yes/no” paddle games at the various interest group meetings will feature a question on whether or not to fire the chief. It’s hard to see how Chief Diaz could remain in place when all is said and done, but it’s also hard not to feel for him. It’s very uncomfortable having your name called out every day in the news.
That brings us to the new citizen panel convened by the mayor and council, the Community Police Commission. These 13 people, plus one each from the Seattle Police Management Association and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, will help implement the reforms laid out in the agreement reached between the city and the Department of Justice.
The majority of panel members are social justice activists and non-profit leaders. The absence of neighborhood representation or neighborhood business districts on the commission is hard to miss. Perhaps this is an intentional move on the part of the mayor to shore up a part of his base that has moved away from him.
Co-Chairs Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of the Defender Association, and Diane Narasaki, the Executive Director of the Asian Counseling & Referral Service, are both well-acquainted with local politics and understand how City Hall works. Ms. Daugaard has been at the center of many of these debates around law enforcement for years.
Not surprisingly, some committee members are a part of the coalition that urged the Department of Justice to investigate the SPD for racially biased policing. Jennifer Shaw, with the ACLU of Washington, has been a strong critic of Seattle’s law enforcement practices and often quotes data from a study conducted by UW professor Katherine Beckett (more on that later). Others on the committee have been involved in issues of racial disparities in crime and law enforcement as well.
The committee also has a share of expertise in mental health, addiction and homelessness. Bill Hobson, with the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), will not be shy about his opinions. This is not his first rodeo. Kate Joncas with the Downtown Seattle Association has a strong understanding of the need for treatment and housing as a component of safe streets and has forged strong relationships with service providers like the DESC. She has a strong collaborative instinct and will help keep things moving. (Crosscut contributor and former City Council member Tina Podlodowski is also a member.)
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