Many cities have made front page news regarding racial issues between their residents and their police departments.
White officers shooting Black people or other minorities, or questionable “use of force,” typically is the cause for resident concerns. But systemic racism is frequently just beneath the surface.
Sometimes there is a formal complaint, lawsuit, or protesting by residents to get City Hall’s attention. Frequently, the mayor or city manager schedules public meetings with community leaders or an influential group such as Black Lives Matter or the Black Collective to ensure an open discussion and some type of resolution.
Trust in city leaders’ ability to listen is crucial to Black residents’ participation and candor. Other topics such as the city’s commitment to equity and inclusion, body cameras, training, officers’ personnel files, internal reviews of the circumstances and the need for outside independent investigations of officer-involved complaints quickly become part of the discussion. If city leaders don’t answer questions openly and honestly, or if they appear to defend police at the expense of the residents’ concerns, it will be very difficult to gain the residents’ trust and cooperation.
Some cities are moving ahead on body cameras — and they are the wave of the future. Auburn had two cases in the past few years, and the King County Prosecutor arrested officer Jeffrey Nelson for the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey. Nelson pleaded “not guilty.” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus had already made some changes in the police department, including the chief, and hired a staff person to work on equity and inclusion.
Kent’s Police Chief Rafael Padilla put together a plan for improving relationships with residents of color that includes several new policies and has elected officials’ support. However, recently a federal judge declined to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit filed by the victim’s parents against Kent and one of its officers for the 2017 shooting death of Giovonn Joseph-McDade that raised questions about whether the officer had a reason to fear for his life or the public’s safety, as an inquest jury had determined.
Kent will defend itself, but as the process unfolds, Kent leaders will need to show objectivity and listening skills. This isn’t a choice between the police department and Black residents. The goal is to improve the level of trust for both. It may be uncomfortable, but it is crucial to building community unity. In another case, Kent will be able to demonstrate why body cameras are important for providing the truth after a controversial arrest ends up serving as a training tool to demonstrate questionable police tactics. The chief’s transparency and willingness to confront errors will be important to residents.
Federal Way continues to struggle with finding solutions that will improve minority residents’ view of the police department after the high-profile Josiah Hunter case. Hunter’s family sued police for excessive force with a chokehold and won. The police department later dropped the chokehold tactic. The city appealed and Hunter won again. How police treat minorities had been an issue in the 2019 Federal Way City Council races.
Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell has held three Zoom meetings with the Federal Way Black Collective members and the public. The first one was a disaster as Ferrell took over the meeting and didn’t give the group an opportunity to raise their concerns. He also told them everything was fine in the police department because the department was accredited.
However, several participants held different views. At the second meeting, the representatives for the Black Collective were able to raise some concerns, but Ferrell said no to many, including an independent accountability board that would review police cases of shootings and “use of force.”
Federal Way’s internal review of the case did not find fault with the officer, but the city lost in court twice, and a reading of both cases raised significant questions about why the officer wasn’t disciplined. Ferrell’s disinterest in discussing the case will increase suspicion and may undermine city efforts at improving relationships. And Ferrell is the one that put the case in the public realm by leading a discussion with the chief and the city attorney at a city council meeting after the first loss in an attempt to retry the case in the most favorable light for Ferrell, the department and the officer — and to criticize the judge. He also used the occasion to announce the appeal, which the city lost again.
Ferrell was formerly a King County Prosecutor, and his political link to the police department is well known. His budgets usually include hiring more police officers almost every year, even when crime is down. To his credit, Ferrell did not lose his temper, and he closed by saying he would try to listen more. Ferrell has followed through on a couple of proclamations for Black Lives Matter and Black History Month. But after a couple hundred years of Black Americans getting shot or abused by white police officers, substantive policies like body cameras and accountability boards are needed to demonstrate that the mayor is actually listening.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.