Last night's Stranger-sponsored forum on police accountability was a three-ring freak show without the popcorn (and with fewer masturbating clowns). Over 350 people showed up to participate in the two-hour discussion, which, while heroically moderated by Seattle Channel's C.R. Douglas, was mostly controlled by a vitriolic crowd who demanded justice for the death of John T. Williams and other victims of police violence.
“We’re lodging a complaint in multitude against those creeps in blue who beat us!” a man shouted at one point, while two others unfurled a eight-foot banner reading "DIAZ RESIGN FOR FAILURE TO STOP POLICE VIOLENCE" and marched around the room.
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz did not vow to resign. He also wasn't the sharp-spoken man of last week. His responses were mostly boiler-plate SPD talking points: that 98 percent of interactions between officers and civilians don't end with a use of force. That he wants officers to "engage with community" and "build trust" by having them "hand out surveys" in various neighborhoods.
When pressed, Diaz stated that he did not believe SPD has a systemic problem with using extensive force against minorities.
Nevertheless, Diaz spoke briefly of policy changes implemented to correct the non-problem. After the Mexican-piss incident, when profanity and racial language is used against suspects, "people can expect there will be severe discipline up to and including termination," he said.
To which multiple people screamed, "You lie!" and rattled their protest signs at the chief. The tense hysteria in the crowd was strangely offset by a large (and benign) presence of uniformed and plain clothed police officers. A few chewed gum, real casual, as the audience frothed around them. It was a fucking weird scene.
The queen of that scene was Nicole Gaines, president of the Loren Miller Bar Association (the local chapter of the largest national organization of African American attorneys). Gaines spoke with an eloquence and respectful criticism the crowd oftentimes failed to employ.
When Seattle Police Officers Guild president Rich O'Neill trotted out the statistic that 85 percent of SPD's 1,300 officers have never received a complaint lodged against them, Gaines replied, "Your stats may show that use of force incidents aren’t high, but the number of contacts with police officers that young black males have in communities go unreported because they know they won’t be heard. Your stats don’t show that."
Gaines—seated between Diaz and O'Neill—was SPD's harshest critic. "When police officers take the oath to serve and protect, they become professionals expected to act and respond in a manner that is higher than those they interact with," she said after O'Neill suggested that all the violent, publicized incidents over the past year could've been avoided if the suspects had complied with officer orders.
"To ask the public to always take the high road when dealing with officers when it’s the officers job to be professional is absolutely unacceptable," she said.
And in response to the overarching question of the night—"Where do we go from here?"—Gaines asked that complaints against officers, as well as disciplinary action taken against them, be made accessible to the public online. "I just heard today that the council gets that privilege," she said. "Why can’t the public do that?"**
Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess seemingly agreed with the sentiment. "I wish the police department would speak more openly about their problems and when there are mistakes," he said. "I get reports every few weeks, tell me when officers get discipline and explains why. By hearing about internal discipline and how they manage the department that would build confidence with all of us."
Both Diaz and SPD Office of Professional Accountability Auditor Anne Levinson admitted the SPD website needs major work. "We don’t do a good job of explaining to the public what information you have a right to and how you get to it," said Levinson.
Levinson and others also said that officer training at the state academy left officers ill-equipped to patrol Seattle's diverse neighborhoods. "We have serious concerns about the state training academy," said ACLU of Washington Deputy Director Jennifer Shaw. "[New officers] come to the department at a deficit; they shouldn’t have to be retrained when they come from the academy. The idea that a police officer should be a soldier on the streets is not what we, as citizens, are looking for. We’re looking for peace officers. I don't think we're there yet."
Other suggestions from panelists for promoting police accountability included: Body cameras for all officers, implementing a better detection system to "red flag" problem officers before they escalate situations with civilians, and updating the police union contract (which is currently being renegotiated) to include a zero tolerance policy for racial intolerance and excessive use of force.
Mayor Mike McGinn sat quiet through most of the debate. When he did speak, he stressed open dialogue between officers and civilians as a way to build trust. And he acknowledged the impossible challenge of crafting a perfect police force without excusing bad behavior. "It wouldn’t be honest or realistic to say the police department is immune to our broader social issues," he said. "Still, we have to hold [the department] to a higher standard. And we will."
After the debate, people argued with panelists and amongst themselves if the event would actually result in changes or if it was simply "political puff," as James Bible, president of the local NAACP chapter, grandstanded at one point. (Bible was attempting to rally the crowd into walking out with him. It didn't work.)
It's too soon to gauge what changes will be implemented—with or without guidance from the Department of Justice. But if nothing else, last night's debate was a healthy exercise in public accountability for Seattle's habitually meek crowds. And there, at least, in the lancing of pent-up rage, amidst all the gratuitous clown masturbating, it was successful.
**Lisa Herbold, a staff member for city council member Nick Licata, writes: "All that we get is what the public gets: all complaints + disposition online without names… see monthly reports pull down menu [here]." Gaines was advocating for complaints with names listed, along with the OPA-suggested outcomes of the complaints.