I have been watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri like most of the country. The death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, has reminded all of us about the enormous trust citizens place in their police service. This is a moment to reflect and learn for not just Ferguson, but for every city in this country—including Seattle.
I have been watching the Ferguson police response to peaceful demonstrators and journalists with the same concern I am hearing from people in Seattle. A police service should not suppress the rights of the press to cover news events, nor should peaceful protestors be threatened with militarized force.
Police reform and public safety remain my top priorities. I hired Chief O’Toole who has a proven record of police reform. Together we are building the world’s most responsible, accountable, bias-free and transparent police service. As we’ve already seen by O’Toole’s actions, change is underway. Together we will continue to watch and learn from the events in Ferguson as they unfold.
I want to conclude by offering my condolences to Michael Brown’s family and friends. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you go through this difficult time.
The responsibility, accountability, lack of bias, and transparency of SPD under Chief O'Toole will still need a lot of time and evidence to be taken seriously. But it's nice to hear a statement that never mentions the words "rioting" or "looting." Kudos, Mr. Mayor.
Meanwhile, people are wondering: Does SPD have all this crazy military gear that we're seeing roll through Ferguson's streets? Should we be worried about a repeat of these scenes in our city?
"As far as this notion that we might use militarized equipment, I'm happy to say that we don't," responds SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb. "We are a police service... the Seattle Police Department uses equipment and gear that is specific to our profession. And our profession delivers public safety services."
There is some equipment they use, he concedes, that might look like military weaponry—an armored personnel carrier called a Bearcat, for example.
Its purpose, according to Whitcomb, is to get safely to and from places like active shooting scenes. Can he see that vehicle being used to patrol a protest? "No," he answers. SWAT deployment is "specific" and "targeted," he says. "That is something that would only be brought out in situations where it's required." Such as? A scene like a campus shooting or a mall shooting, he says by way of example, where someone is in an area, dangerous, and police have "an idea of where they are, and we've got to move in safely" or evacuate people from the area.
But could SPD acquire new military weapons in the future, perhaps via the federal government? Well, they learned a lesson the hard way last year, when SPD quietly got a Department of Homeland Security grant to buy two aerial drones, a program Mayor Mike McGinn shut down after an outcry; the Seattle City Council then passed an ordinance requiring any city department to get council approval before purchasing any surveillance equipment. "We're very aware of public concerns regarding militarization," says Whitcomb. "That is not a direction our department is headed."
The department is undergoing dramatic changes and facing a lot of scrutiny since a Department of Justice investigation into biased policing and excessive use of force. But should the city look into policies explicitly barring future purchases of military-style tactical equipment? I've reached out to Mayor Murray's office to ask further policy questions.
I had one more question for Whitcomb: Is SPD paying attention to what's happening in Ferguson? "I would venture that every police agency in North America is keeping a close eye on the events in Ferguson," he answered.