Locals on police reform: ‘We don’t have a voice'

police protest black lives race

Seattle police and Black Lives Matter activists at a 2015 demonstration.

The hardest thing Dominique Davis has to do is tell his black son to submit. When he gets pulled over, Davis tells him, he should put his empty hands out the window. Don’t reach for anything, he says, not even a registration. Better to be put into handcuffs and have the police open the glove box for him than to have his movements misinterpreted.

“That’s the hardest thing to tell a son,” says Davis, a leader in Seattle’s African American community. “Because you know what I’m doing? I’m telling him to be afraid of this white man in a badge. … I’m perpetuating the slave mentality and that pisses me off.”

The events of last week have once again catapulted American policing into the limelight. Not that it ever went away for Davis and others in Seattle’s black community, but the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers have lent momentum to the conversation: Mayor Ed Murray has given two press conferences, and community meetings have begun to pop up in libraries and school gyms.

Behind this momentum, though, is a sense of helplessness. People want to do something, but are unsure what, exactly. Some want to burn the system down, while others advocate for incremental change. Some defend the Process behind police reform in Seattle, while others doubt the System can ever fix itself. Some say diversify the police force, while others point to places like Baltimore or Washington D.C. to show how that didn’t work there.

While the solutions are opaque, there is one clear indicator of change that has drawn the most eyes: African American trust in police. And although Seattle is four years deep into a federal consent decree to reform the department and although Murray hired reform-minded Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the level of trust, according to a January survey, hasn’t budged. There are too many stories like Davis’ and moving that number north is going to take a lot more than a new chief or a federal judge.

Reverend Harriett Walden opened a Monday meeting of Mothers for Police Accountability with perhaps the one statement that resonates across America: “We’re grieving.” Under the buzzing lights of a Garfield High School basketball gym, a diverse crowd of more than 50 people sat in a circle. Every 10 minutes or so, people would move their chairs back to make room for the growing crowd.

The meeting had a practical purpose — answer the question “Where do we go from here?” — but the gathering itself was structured as a healing. One by one, people stood up, introduced themselves and read from the card handed to them at the start. On each card was a virtue — grace, forgiveness, tolerance, mindfulness, accountability — a random and different one for each person in the room. Doing so seemed to put the community members, police officers, advocates, youth and representatives from City Hall on the same level.

The easier part since last week has been defining the pain and relating it to personal experience. One woman recalled her time in Florida, where she said deaths at the hands of police went unrecorded all the time. This pain has been here a long time, she said, but now people can see it.

Reverend Wayne Perryman spoke of his son, a dean’s list college student. Perryman said his son was assaulted one evening by five white men, but it was his son who was charged for assault, not the other way around. The charge was dismissed, but lives on his record and in police reports. The police, he said, had not done enough to clear his son’s name.

Alexis Austin, a 20-year-old Garfield High graduate, told of the unique challenges facing her generation. “I don’t feel like we have a voice,” she said, “simply because we don’t have a connection with the police here. They’re just clearly superior, that’s how they’ve carried themselves. I don’t know the police. I’ve seen some of the around [the Central District] for years and I don’t know a name.”

Assistant Police Chief Perry Tarrant and Capt. John Hayes from the Seattle Police Department and Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim listened to these stories and occasionally participated. The officials' presence was felt and when they spoke, people listened. In this space, there was not always agreement, but there was a bridge between community and government.

Outside these walls, the connection isn’t always so easy to find, stemming in part from varying views on progress. Mayor Murray last week sought to draw a distinction between Seattle and other parts of the country, pointing in large part to the progress made under the federal consent decree.

Capt. Hayes, the onetime national chair of the National Black Police Association and an enormously respected presence in the community, also praised the consent decree. “I did not know how professional policing could be until [the feds] came through,” he said. “It’s kind of a weird statement, but it’s helped us really show what we could do as officers. … There’s a negative tone for the whole thing, but the reality is you’ve helped so many officers become so professional and get recognized for being so professional.”

Despite rising confidence in parts of Seattle and despite the praises of City Hall officials, the disconnect between that process and the community is palpable. “The whole stubborn mistrust springs out of the fact that there is this history of relationships with officers in Seattle,” says Marcus Green, editor-in-chief and founder of the South Seattle Emerald news website. “Simply decreeing that we are going to change doesn’t quite negate all that history. … The fact that people still have run-ins that are very, let’s say, not the most civil, it remains stubborn.”

Community leader Davis laughs when asked about the consent decree. “That’s like us asking the slave master to free the slave…,” says Davis of the reforms. “The DOJ has been around forever. This ain’t new. What’s happening ain’t new. It’s not like ‘Oh my god, there’s a crisis, we’ve got to fix it.’”

Community involvement is the grail for people like Davis who would like to see dramatic changes in how police function. But it’s not always clear how much of a voice is present in the reform process. There is the Community Police Commission, established under the decree, but its recommendations are held as advisory and it is not allowed to review specific cases. Lately, its members’ frustration with the process has boiled over. “I don’t think [the consent decree] could possibly have as much of a prominent and profound mechanism of reform as it could potentially be if the community isn’t involved in every single step of the way,” says Green.

The fact of the matter is, neither Green nor Davis nor Austin feel like that voice is reaching the chambers of the federal judge in charge of the decree.

For Davis, true community involvement means getting to “a point where we have people in our communities, policing our communities, from our communities.” In some respects Capt. Hayes is an example of that.

He’s policed the same area for over 30 years and even the most staunch critics of the police department come to him Monday evening and give him a hug. Every criticism is hedged with, “But not John.”

Hayes agrees with Davis on more community representation on the force and begs the room Monday evening to send their sons and daughter and friends to the department. It's a big step for people with a deep mistrust of belief, but his hope is that O'Toole and the consent decree can build enough goodwill that people from Rainier Beach or South Park might consider it.

The Emerald's founder, Green, on the other hand, is skeptical whether diversity is necessarily the answer. “If reform was truly about diversity, then the Washington D.C. and Baltimore police force would be the models for reform,” he says. “They’re not.”

At the end of the meeting, butcher paper sheets posted to the walls of the gym were filled with a sharpie list of next steps: create better avenues for police to criticize their own, foster more youth involvement, speak up at protests and facilitate more dialogue.

Capt. Hayes takes the long view on gaining trust. “Do we have a ways to go? Yeah.

"But do I think we’re going to make that turn? Yeah, as long as we stay strong, we stay together, we stay talking and we’re giving examples of why you need to be a member of law enforcement.”

But while Hayes may be the model police officer, it's not the John Hayes' of the world that people are worried about. It's the officers who fought new use of force policies, it's the one bully out of 20 that happens to patrol their block, it's the Seattle Police Officers Guild's accusatory tweets.

Things may continue to change in the Seattle Police Department, but as long as either politics, bureaucracy or the circled wagons of officers trumps community voices, true trust could be a longtime coming.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.