Seattle flailing in search for better police-community ties

When SPD and the community disagree, says a key city leader, there needs to be a place to go where all sides routinely gather to solve problems together. But a meeting to discuss one model turns tense.

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A rally on Tuesday supported Seattle police.

When SPD and the community disagree, says a key city leader, there needs to be a place to go where all sides routinely gather to solve problems together. But a meeting to discuss one model turns tense.

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.”

The letters in the name ARIA summarize the organization’s collaborative approach around four key areas (antagonism, resonance, inventing, and action) as follows: surfacing antagonism; finding shared resonance; inventing creative options, and planning action. An ARIA process in Seattle would convene representatives from eight or so different community groups with their own perspectives and identity — perhaps starting with Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, youth, police officers, police guild representatives, etc. — to agree on a list of their particular issues, their explanations for why those exist, and their suggestions for how to address them.

Then all groups would assemble to arrive at some common definitions of problems and agree on some  procedures for resolving them. Finally, all parties would sign a written agreement to engage in a cooperative system that includes timelines, responsibilities, and monitoring. “It’s ongoing,” said Tiffany. “It doesn’t happen just once and end up on a shelf.” OPARB is committed to creating a durable bridge of collaboration between police and the community, “something like [ARIA] if not ARIA,” he said. It would supplement, not replace, existing efforts within and beyond the police department.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the council’s public safety, civil rights, and technology committee, spoke briefly at the start of the meeting Tuesday evening. Two days later Harrell said, “The city has not endorsed the ARIA collaborative process. What I wanted to see was how the community reacted once the process was described to them. I also wanted to see how the leaders in ARIA interfaced with the public. Feedback to me has not been positive.”

To Harrell, the $500,000 that would be needed from the city and private investors for ARIA would be worth spending if it took relations between the community and police “to an unprecedented level.” But a strong case has not been made for hiring that consultant group, he said.

Organizations already exist in Seattle, including city employees, who are experienced in teaching conflict resolution. “Before I go to another state, shouldn’t I look around the city here first? I’m always reluctant to hire someone from out of state to tell us what to do at home,” he said.

Regarding needed changes in relations between police and the community, one of Harrell’s most pressing concerns is that the city is inconsistent in its messages to the police department. On Monday night a public meeting was held in the Lakewood/Seward Park community to address the question of how police could be more effective in southeast Seattle, and the entire conversation was about increasing police assertiveness, he said. “The issue of accountability did not surface.” But on Tuesday night the discussion was all about accountability.

“On the one hand, we tell them go out there and clean these streets up, be aggressive, be assertive," Harrell said about the pressures on police. "On the other hand, we say we want constitutional policing, and never want force used unreasonably.” He said he wants to connect these conversations and stop sending police conflicting signals about expectations.

Harrell pointed to an incident where a policeman in a scuffle with some students he was citing for jaywalking punched a 17-year-old girl in the face. “Here’s a situation where we instruct an officer who is alone to go out and assertively enforce the jaywalking code at Franklin High when all students are walking freely back and forth. How assertive is he supposed to be in doing his job? He shouldn’t have punched the young lady, but wouldn’t it be more effective to have several police officers who know students and their culture to try a different tactic to enforce jaywalking ordinances?”

Conflicting public messages seem to me an ideal topic for discussion in an ongoing program of regularly scheduled meetings of citizens and police — a kind of infrastructure for community problem-solving. No process will keep human beings from occasionally making mistakes. But a system in which deliberations routinely take place would let different stakeholders speak out in ways that would help them understand each other's perspectives, resolve tensions, learn together from mistakes when they happen, and work collaboratively on plans for a better future.

Also at issue is the effectiveness of OPARB. According to Tiffany, “the board is I think frustrated with the lack of power and the resulting lack of trust — of street credibility if you will — with the community.” Harrell agreed that OPARB members “do not enjoy the confidence of the public that I would like to see.”

However, Harrell pointed out, in comparison to a wide variety of police accountability systems in major U.S. cities, Seattle’s Auditor, OPA director, and OPARB form a configuration widely considered a best practice. “So before we prematurely say, ‘Change the model,’ we need to know what changes would make sense.” Similarly, Tiffany said the board will use community input and the DOJ report to make recommendations to the city about OPARB's functions, authority, and independence.

Considerations both of OPARB’s role and of creating an ongoing collaborative process for improving police-community relations will be pursued concurrently with the DOJ review, said Harrell. “These issues need to be addressed irrespective of DOJ actions, not just in response to them.”


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