City Hall creates racial divide

Mayor and staff “retry” a case the city had already lost.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

The national debate about police officers using excessive force against people of color has reached Federal Way — and it wasn’t our finest moment. After four decades of both watching and participating in politics and public policy, and sitting in the mayor’s chair myself, I thought I had seen it all. But I was shocked by what I saw at a recent council meeting.

As readers will recall, a young man named Josiah Hunter won a $640,000 judgment against the Federal Way Police Department for excessive force when he was placed in a lateral vascular neck restraint, or chokehold, after he stopped to help at a car accident. Hunter is African American. Mayor Jim Ferrell decided to appeal the court’s decision.

Ferrell is a former county prosecutor who relies on the Police Guild for political support. Insiders say the guild’s influence over Ferrell is so strong it dictates many of his policies that affect other parts of City Hall. Intended or not, the optics were ready-made for dividing the community along racial lines if not handled with wisdom and skill. This was a defining moment in Ferrell’s tenure as mayor, but he did not seem to even grasp the magnitude of the situation, let alone its implications. It was not an either/or proposition, but he made it one and rather than rise to the higher calling the occasion required and recognize the need to think of the full community and its cultural importance to the police department’s success, Ferrell dug in his heels to support only the police. He wouldn’t even consider reviewing whether or not the chokehold was appropriate or that police behavior might be open to question or review, as the court result suggested.

At the Sept. 18 council meeting, Hunter’s family and friends asked why the city was appealing the verdict. Citizens should be entitled to question their leaders’ decisions without fear of retaliation or attack. Hunter’s supporters felt the court had been very clear about the city’s blame in the case. They also asked that a police review board be established to provide independent oversight for questions of force. Five council members expressed interest in taking a closer look at such a concept.

A few years ago beloved satirical columnist Mr. Federal Way referred to Donald Trump and Ferrell as “Frump,” as Ferrell has frequently taken on a Trumpian style. This is one example: “never admit error and always attack.” This play should never be used — most specifically not against your own citizens and neighbors. It will usually make a bad situation worse, and could provide unintended consequences. Matthew Jarvis, among others, can tell you what that is like. Remember the financial plan for the Performing Arts and Events Center he questioned? We now know Jarvis was correct.

At the Oct .2 council meeting, Ferrell did what I had never seen before and implemented Trump’s play No. 1. Ferrell’s use of Police Chief Andy Hwang, city attorney Ryan Call and the council chambers to “retry” a case the city had already lost, in an effort to gain political leverage in the court of public opinion, was shocking. The chief and attorney each gave lengthy presentations on the case, even though the city had already said it would appeal. Council members Hoang Tran and Jesse Johnson both questioned the appropriateness, as attorneys always tell council members not to talk about a pending case or verdict in public. But this was beyond a mere mention; it was a full political spin and attack in the guise of giving the public accurate information.

The intent was to present the officer’s actions in the most positive light possible, and undermine comments the Hunter family made at the previous meeting, along with the judge and court’s legal determination, in a setting controlled by Ferrell. A second goal appeared to be to try and stop any further discussion of a police review board.

Hwang made much of the department’s accreditation, which is nice, but irrelevant, and in no way excuses police as infallible. He also said there is anti-bias training, but outside review is far more objective than internal review in determining if bias exists.

The department had already determined “the officers actions to be consistent with department policy and justified” and they still lost the case in court. According to city staff, that is the same finding that occurred for the last five complaints of excessive force.

The officer was made to sound beyond question, although documents obtained under public disclosure, and the court determination suggested the opposite. The chief does have an advisory board, but it has no power and is not a substitute for knowledgeable objective review of police actions.

The presentations to the council were slanted toward the police point of view to achieve a desired political outcome for Ferrell. Call said the case turns on who you believe, implying that the court of law, and the Hunter family are less believable than the police officers in question. Call’s statement did acknowledge that Hunter was trying to help at the scene, but undercuts that statement by saying “at least initially.” Call also sought to recreate the situation to the officer’s benefit by saying: “Judging their actions on facts available to us, after the fact, and with all the time in the world is unfair and not a legal standard .” That appears to be an admission of error, but then he tries to justify any error as “unfair.” But,what do we expect from our police? We expect them to get it right, at the scene, after review and also in the eyes of a court! And they didn’t.

Call referred to Hunter and a friend and further said, “When viewed objectively, from a police’s perspective, the two men were acting strangely.” The “police perspective” is, by definition, not objective, it is their perspective. The court is objective, and the court supported Hunter over the police.

The presentation then described an AM/PM clerk to the public and the council as, “a highly unreliable witness,” because her statement differed from the police. It may have, but that is her right, it’s only value in the council meeting was to try and lay blame on someone else to buttress public support for the police. Her statement sounds credible in the report.

Call’s presentation was interpretive, rather than objective, and blamed the loss in court on the judge and the jury for legal errors while disagreeing with the jury findings. That is Trumpian Play No. 2. Blame the victim and anyone else who has a different opinion. The chief’s and attorney’s report was intended to intimidate council members, as were the visits from Police Guild representatives that followed.

Ferrell likes to say that the department has widespread public support. That is probably not true any longer, and may not have been before this, as the presentations felt like bullying by the chief and the attorney at Ferrell’s direction, and was not only an inappropriate use of City Hall, but could further erode police credibility in the community to people of color, rather then increase it.

In the aftermath, Ferrell has continued to disregard the court’s conclusion, back police without reservation and has squandered a huge opportunity to lead and bring the community together. At the Oct. 16 council meeting, 50 years to the day after Tommie Smith and John Carlos brought race relations into your living room through the Olympics, Hunter’s mother, Sanetta, again stood at the council lectern with grace and dignity, and vividly underscored the racial inequity Ferrell seems unable to comprehend. Ferrell initially said no to her request for an additional few minutes to speak, although he wisely relented. The chief and attorney had made lengthy presentation, not taken just a few minutes. Sanetta Hunter works in the prosecutors office and was well prepared for her “extra few minutes.”

The point? This city is changing and is no longer dominated by one race. It contains over 100 different languages and we celebrate the many different cultures that form our community. Our school district is the most diverse in the state, as is Highline, the community college for our district, and three council members of color have been elected in the last three years. Our school superintendent and one state representative are people of color, as are two new school board members. Different viewpoints, cultures and life experiences need to be considered when leading the city. Council member Hoang Tran noted how people from other cultures frequently have a fear of the police. Fewer and fewer people share Ferrell’s view, as a former prosecutor, that the police are above question.

Thoughtful, reasoned leadership is needed, not overly defensive reactions that belittle and attack the views of a significant part of Federal Way. It only makes the police job harder.

Then, if possible, it got worse.

Two days after the council meeting another lawsuit was filed for the 2016 fatal shooting of Ricardo Hernandez. The suit says Hernandez was having a mental health episode when police shot him. Six times, from only 20 feet.

Ferrell is fond of saying “I work for you.” But which you? It feels like a misplaced cliché when it comes to objective review of our police department, as it appears he only works for the police and residents who agree with him. In the case of trusting the police department, that may no longer be a majority of our residents.

Whether it was wrong for the city to appeal the Hunter decision is debatable. But to treat any citizens or neighbors in such an offensive manner, as the Hunter family was treated, was a regrettable use of authority. Ferrell’s choice of division, when unity was called for, does not bode well for becoming a model for race relations. The police need the full community’s support to be successful, not just part of it. That’s my opinion.

And it will likely lead to Trumpian play No. 3, which we have seen before. Attack the media, or columnist, and call inserting your own opinion “correcting facts”even though Ferrell has already allowed the police and attorney a full presentation on television.

Will Ferrell truly consider the long-term impact of what he did, and learn and lead all the cultures that share this place we call home? Or will he crank up another misleading Mayor’s Memo, paid for with taxpayer’s dollars, to curry political favor with the police guild by restating his own prosecutorial bias as if it were fact? Pray it’s the former.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

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