At a standing-room-only community meeting in Columbia City Church of Hope last night, neighbors who were traumatized by the police shooting on their street a month ago, and the ensuing lockdown, shared their stories. They talked of huddling in their homes, wondering if they were safe, trying to reassure their children—but getting little or no response from police or 911 as to what was going on around them. The nearby elementary school was apparently not notified of the shooting, and even after police realized there was no further danger to people in homes nearby, the neighborhood, which had awoken to the sound of gunfire and flashbang grenades—as a Bellevue Police SWAT team tried to serve a warrant and ended up shooting the man they were there to arrest, Russell Smith, and storming the house where he was staying—wasn't given an all-clear. They're also horrified that Smith, their neighbor's brother, was killed in the first place; residents have questioned the police account of the shooting from the get-go.
When representatives from the two police departments involved—Seattle and Bellevue—had a turn to speak, you could feel the seething frustration and disappointment in the room. The police can't say all that much while an investigation into the shooting is under way, and Columbia City residents are clearly sick of the platitudes. While Bellevue's Major Mike Johnson said things like "When all the dust settles on this case, you'll have the answers," at least one neighborhood resident stormed out of the room, while another woman whispered to the person next to her, "He really hasn't said anything, has he? They're really good at that."
Seattle's South Precinct Captain, Steve Paulsen, is warm and funny, clearly better with crowds than the stiff, pained-looking Johnson—but he couldn't give answers, either. Nor could interim police chief Jim Pugel.
Russell Smith's brothers Rydell and Greg listen to neighbors and police speak.
Bellevue police chief Linda Pillo was abysmal in many respects, completely botching an apology to the family and the neighborhood when, a ways into the meeting, Russell Smith's brother Greg stood up. He asked directly for "an apology from Bellevue to the community that was affected, regardless of whether it was wrong or right, and to the family that was affected, regardless of whether it was wrong or right. We just want that apology that hasn't come for a month."
Pillo answered: "I am sorry for the loss of your brother. The officers are very sorry... The suspect's action created a reaction," and a chorus of hisses, boos, and outraged cries came from the audience. Mark Gendron, who lives on the street where the shooting took place, told me later she "needs some training on how to do an apology."
Pillo was better when Genessa Krasnow, who was moderating the meeting, put her on the spot for repairs to Smith's brother Rydell's house. "We need Russell Smith and Rydell Smith's house repaired. Tomorrow," she said. Pillo replied, "We have a process that we go through. I'm going to see what I can do to expedite that process. I hear you loud and clear." Krasnow later assured me that she'll be following up with BPD on that promise.
So what really comes of all this? What actions come next?
As much as many of the neighbors focus on minute details of the case, combing through evidence they saw themselves and shared with each other through e-mail lists and meetings, they'll have to wait through the inquest process to get the answers they're seeking, which will take months. There is, apparently, video of the event, according to BPD's Major Johnson.
More than that, there is a question of why Bellevue was allowed to serve this warrant instead of SPD. But that's not necessarily going to change in the future—police departments occasionally have to serve warrants outside of their jurisdiction.
What could possibly change in the future is the way police departments communicate with each other when they're crossing jurisdictional boundaries like this. SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb told me last night. "This situation is going to be talked about by all police departments in King County," he said. "We owe it to the people who are affected to give them key information, timely information... so they are empowered and not left in a state of fear." And if there's anything other than the repairs on their neighbor's house that this community can keep asking police about, it's that issue: How can we be sure that a police department coming into another city understands the standard of behavior? It seems clear from the way they interact with the public that there's a cultural difference between these two police departments, SPD and BPD. Seattle has problems enough with its own police department. How can we be sure an outside department doesn't make that worse?