Church groups push for action on feds' Seattle police report

Ministers say that they are working together to bring about a strong city response to findings from the U.S. Department of Justice on the use of force by the Seattle Police Department. One group is meeting with DOJ representatives today.

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Seattle and Portland police have been more aggressive than many departments in addressing juvenile prostitution cases.

Ministers say that they are working together to bring about a strong city response to findings from the U.S. Department of Justice on the use of force by the Seattle Police Department. One group is meeting with DOJ representatives today.

A federal investigation charging Seattle's police department with routine civil rights violations, particularly against minorities, has prompted a number of religious leaders to band together.

Many are now calling for a variety of reforms, as well as the dismissal of Police Chief John Diaz. Over a dozen pastors of different faiths met with Mayor Mike McGinn earlier this month and asked him to fire Diaz, said Pastor Lawrence Ricky Willis, president of the United Black Christian Clergy of Washington (UBCCW) .

"What we wanted was for the chief to be dismissed and for a new chief to be put in place," Willis said.  The mayor demurred, Willis said, and they were told that dismissing Chief Diaz "would do more harm than good," as the police department implements reform. 

Willis said the Jan. 12 meeting with McGinn included Michael Ramos, president of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and representatives of the Catholic Diocese, the Lutheran Church Council, and Faith Action Network, among more than 15 leaders. 

Members of the UBCCW are meeting with Department of Justice lawyers today (Jan. 25) to present recommendations for police reform. (See box on right side.)

Released in December, the Department of Justice report found that civil rights are violated in one out of five incidents where Seattle police use force. While only a small subset of officers are responsible for these violations, the burden falls heavily on a subset of Seattle's population: non-white residents.  “Of the cases that we determined to be unnecessary or excessive uses of force, over 50% involved minorities,” the report says. Investigators used the police department’s own incident reports as a primary basis for its analysis. 

Chief Diaz' initial response to the report was to question how the conclusions were reached. After receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union asking for a change of tone from the city, McGinn ordered Diaz to begin implementing changes immediately. Some departmental changes were already underway, but will also have to be negotiated with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.

The report stops short of a conclusion about biased policing. “Although we do not reach a finding of discriminatory policing," the report says, "our investigation raises serious concerns about practices that could have a disparate impact on minority communities."

“Serious concerns” seem an understatement to Willis. “How many more incidents or statistics do they need?” Willis asked. “Do they have to see the blood? And see the beatings?” 

Also pastor of Truevine of Holiness Missionary Baptist Church, Willis was one of the founding members of Seattle's United Black Christian Clergy chapter four years ago.

“We organized for the purpose of empowering the African-American community and working with them on justice issues, from police brutality to racial profiling to hate crimes,” Willis said. 

The report confirmed what many African American social justice leaders have been saying for years. Many have had personal experience with police, with courts, with discrimination, which inspired their activism. For those who are also religious leaders, the desire for reform is often intertwined with their spiritual lives.  

It was after witnessing the shooting of a young black man at the Dakota Apartments five years ago that Willis decided to co-found the United Black Christian Clergy. Willis said he watched as a white female paramedic administered CPR to the injured man. “He died right in front of me,” Willis said.

In the quest for fairness, the role of faith was in evidence not just at the mayoral meeting, but was also on display at a prayer meeting Willis helped organize earlier this month at the Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church in the Central District.

A dozen or more pastors, most members of the UBCCW, took turns leading the congregation. With so much rhetorical talent, a pray-off ensued, with each speaker matching and then out-doing the lyricism of the one before. Each, in his own way, asked God for justice. They sought Justice for the Jobless, Justice in the Legal System, Justice in Law Enforcement, and Justice for those Incarcerated Unjustly.

Some of the speakers were Baptist, one was Methodist and there was at least one Roman Catholic — Oscar Eason, president of the Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a guest of the UBCCW, he joked about Catholics’ poor reputation in the realm of creative supplicating.

“I’ve been told, 'you Catholics don’t know how to pray .. you can only repeat verbatim something coming from the Pope,' " Eason said. “But I was born praying,” he said, proving the point with an impassioned plea for equality before the law. 

Pastor Steve Baber made a case for activism, “The clothes don’t get clean unless they’re agitated,” said the leader of Skyway Methodist, accompanied by rhythmic organ chords, which swelled at key moments. 

Hard questions were posed in the prayers. Pastor Emeritus Dr. Samuel McKinney of Mount Zion Baptist Church asked, “How do we deconstruct an ideology which sets some arbitrarily on the path to prosperity and others on the path to ruin, quite unnecessarily?” And then, more to the point, “How do we prick the heart of this mayor, so that he will terminate this police chief?” a request which was met with scattered clapping, nodding and verbal affirmation from the congregation.

Police who enforce the law with honor were blessed. And prayers were offered on behalf of black youth.

"Our young mens and young womens are being harrassed for no reason,” prayed Pastor Shelby Tate. “We ask that Thou would stop that this night." 

Harassment of black youth has been ongoing for decades, said another prominent black leader, Rev. Harriett Walden, co-founder of Mothers for Police Accountability. Walden had a prior engagement the night of the prayer meeting — a birthday dinner with her son — but is a vocal advocate for police reform. Walden sent a letter on behalf of her group to the Department of Justice Jan. 14 recommending several changes to the police department's policies for dealing with complaints. Among them are to immediately flag citizen use of force complaints that indicate discrimination for review. Currently, an officer can receive 12 use of force complaints a year without incurring review, the letter says. Walden has also asked that Chief Diaz be dismissed.

"My ministry is social justice," Walden said. She has worked, ever since police took her son into custody 22 years ago after pulling him over for nothing more than "driving while black," Walden has reportedly said. She was a co-signor of the 2010 letter from the ACLU requesting the investigation into the police department's practices and policies. 

The subsequent report speaks to the fears of young minorities who have felt harassed, describing police confusion over what constitutes lawful detention. “SPD must ensure that its officers understand that, unless they have a sufficient factual basis to detain someone, a person is free to walk away from police and free to disregard a police request to come or stay," the report says. " ... inappropriate pedestrian encounters may disproportionately involve youth of color,” it says, adding that evidence was "not conclusive."

While several violent police encounters with minority citizens have been recorded and widely broadcast (see 2010 ACLU letter) , the report highlights others which may not have otherwise come to light.  One involves a young black man who offered to help at the scene of an accident, and said he worked at a hospital. A policeman asked the would-be helper if he was a janitor there. The incident was reported by a white bystander and confirmed by the officer, who was counseled but not disciplined, the report said. 

In another incident, police responded to a call about a stabbing at a party, and found a man, drunk and asleep in bed with his hand under a pillow. When the man did not respond to a request to show his hand, multiple officers beat him with batons and then took him in. The man, who did not speak English as his first language, did not realize what had happened and thanked the police for rescuing him from his attackers. The report found that when police use batons, they cross constitutionally-protected boundaries in more than one out of every two incidents (57 percent of the time). 

The UBCCW and Mothers for Police Accountability are also advocating that discipline against police be applied equally, and are calling for charges to be dropped against a black officer in a controversial case from 2010. Officer Garth Haynes is charged with assault for allegedly kicking a detained white man in the head, after the man, with two friends, had earlier allegedly attacked and beaten the off-duty officer, using racial epithets. Charges against the white men were dropped after Haynes declined to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment. Haynes has pleaded not guilty

UBCCW does not condone the officer’s alleged actions, Willis said, but asks that standards be made clear and punishments evenly applied. “The charges,” Willis said, “have been dropped on other officers for things that they’ve done to our African American men.”

Overall, the United Black Christian Clergy is looking to foster unity. “We stand together as a community,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get anything done is that we’ve got to be together.”

Walden cautions that reform doesn't happen overnight. 

"This is going to take some time to implement these changes," she said. "We want our community to actually have read the report and participate in creating an engagement model that will serve the people of Seattle."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based reporter, writer and editor and an adjunct at the University of Washington where she leads narrative non-fiction workshops for scientists. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of The Science Chronicles, an environmental conservation monthly. Follow her @staceysolie