The meeting was not open to the public, nor on any public event calendar. Those who were invited — including representatives from the Ethiopian, Somali, Latino, LGBT and Muslim communities, as well as the ACLU and the Community Police Commission — were not provided an agenda in advance. They didn’t know why they’d been invited, or who else would be there.
All they had was a vague invitation, like something out of an Agatha Christie novel: “The Seattle Police Department, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the Washington State Fusion Center, invite you to a roundtable discussion titled Building Communities of Trust."
So as the meeting’s moderators began discussing the importance of reporting suspicious activity — the “see something, say something” mantra — the guests were blindsided. This was a meeting about terrorism, not community policing. Communities of trust, it seemed, were not so much being built as demanded. And for many in the room, the fact of their invitation only reinforced the notion that they were a member of a targeted community.
The meeting was meant to be a chance to “demystify Homeland Security,” according to Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb. On this subject, law enforcement in Seattle can be a complicated and interconnected web, including local agencies like the King County Sheriff’s Officer and Washington State Patrol, and national agencies like the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Much of that web meets at the Washington State Fusion Center, a “counterterrorism” hub made of representative from local, state and federal agencies. For the various departments, they paint this interconnectedness as quality communication – information deemed relevant to the broader law enforcement community can easily seep between departments.
But many people have a deep mistrust of one or more of those departments, often minority and refugee groups. So the idea that sharing information with SPD, for example, could end up with the FBI or ICE does not necessarily encourage participation.
Whitcomb says “there is no secret database” of shared information between departments, and that this cooperation usually comes as wanted advisories or crime bulletins. Regardless, departmental collaboration is a vague and confusing puzzle. So confusing that Lt. Keith Trowbridge — who works at the Washington Fusion Center – says that the way departments share information is “not an easy thing to understand. Even being here for a while, it’s hard for me to understand how these pieces fit together.”
As a result of that foggy window, it’s hardly a surprise that a meeting with federal agents would be met with intense skepticism, especially when the subjects are being ask to report suspicious activity within their own community.
“It is my sincere desire to help these guys to prevent acts of violence,” says meeting attendee Jeff Siddiqi, a Lynnwood real estate agent and outspoken advocate on behalf of Muslim. But just saying “trust us” does not work, he says. “Don’t ask me to point out people because I’m suspicious of them. When we point people out, it destroys their life.”
What he wants to know is, “How will you take what we have and treat it in a careful way until you know if they are guilty or innocent? I think what they thought is they’d say trust us, we’ll do the right thing and we’ll say of course. I told them is that hasn’t worked for us in the past.”
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole sat in on the meeting, mostly listening. Shankar Narayan, policy analyst for the ACLU, says her comments “were the most constructive,” a sentiment echoed by others in the room at the time.
But sitting in the room with the feds is a precarious place for SPD. While not a direct mandate of the federal consent decree on SPD, community policing is a well-publicized goal for O’Toole’s department. On paper, there’s been progress— micro community policing plans developed for each neighborhood and expanded outreach to communities historically disenfranchised by police. At President Obama’s final State of the Union, O’Toole sat in Michelle Obama’s box and was recognized for her work on this issue.
Does the reality match the political? That’s debatable. But there are risks in allowing the SPD to be seen as collaborating with long maligned agencies. “We would like the SPD to be Seattle’s department,” says Narayan. “Their interest should be community trust. I think community trust could be undermined if they’re seen entangling with ICE or the Fusion Center.”
When people hear “feds,” they may think of ugly FBI raids, undercover infiltration and deportations. At the meeting, DHS and Fusion Center representatives begged off some of the complaints, arguing they didn’t apply to their organizations. But, again, the confusing collage of inter-departmental collaboration blurs distinction.
The meeting was intended as an olive branch. But because no one knew what would be discussed, there was no opportunity to prepare. As attendees walked through the front door of the New Holly Gathering Hall, a beautiful and well lit space with a curved ceiling like the inside of a canoe, they were handed the materials for the day, including a leaflet titled “Suspicious Activity Reporting, Indicators and Behaviors.” Only then could they glean why they were there.
All but one of the meeting’s moderators was a white man in a suit – the image of them lecturing a room of minority and immigrant communities was stark. “That’s where everyone was like, ‘Why are you asking us to report suspicious activity? We’re the ones being reported,’” says Stearns.
The presenters spoke of terrorism and public safety. At one point Siddiqi asked one of the men what his definition of terrorism was. "He mumbled, and finally said ‘acts of violence to promote religion,’” says Siddiqi. Reaction from the room was immediate and negative.
The people invited to the room wanted some nagging questions answered: What will happen if I report someone? How will that information be shared? What constitutes "legitimate criminal justice concerns"? Where does one jurisdiction end and another begin? How completely can data be scrubbed?
"They were asking me a lot of question and some of them were getting off topic," says Lt. Trowbridge. It was hard, he says, "when you’re trying to do an overview [of the Fusion Center] and then you have these questions that lead in different directions."
The progress of the Seattle Police Department's community policing efforts is hard to quantify, but there are some signs of progress. Head of the Somali Community Center Sahra Farah told Crosscut earlier this year that O’Toole and her entourage have made more visits to their small center in South Seattle than she can remember any other chief doing. Chris Stearns, a Navajo and longtime member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, thinks O’Toole is “doing great” and maintains a level of trust not afforded to other law enforcement officials.
The reaction to the Seattle police shooting of African-American man Che Taylor shows the limits of that trust. But inklings of progress can be found.
The federal departments, on the other hand, have lived in the shadows. A similar meeting occurred in 2010, but there was little follow-up and the departments faded away once again. Narayan attended that meeting, and says questions in this were "verbatim" from 2010.
"Trust is not built by saying ‘Trust us, we’re doing a great job,’" says Siddiqi. "You need to look into the people you want to build trust with and find out their issues.”