Council, community mull Federal Way police accountability

Excessive force lawsuits prompt police accountability review board discussions.

As the city moves through an appeal process over an excessive force lawsuit it recently lost, and another case that was just filed against the city, the council and community are mulling what accountability measures the Federal Way Police Department has in place and whether those are enough.

Prompted by increased calls for a police accountability board, Chief of Police Andy Hwang gave a presentation about the accountability measure already in place for the department during the Oct. 2 City Council meeting.

Calls for a police accountability review board stem from a 2014 incident involving use of force against resident Josiah Hunter, whose family later filed a lawsuit against the city. King County Superior Court recently ruled in favor of the Hunter family, awarding them $640,000 from the city. The city is appealing the ruling.

During Hwang’s presentation, he told the council about the chief’s advisory board already in place.

He said the advisory board is similar to a police accountability review board where he meets with a group called “Chief’s Call,” a citizen group representing different demographics in Federal Way.

“The board gives the police chief feedback and insight enhancing the chief’s ability to make more informed and just decisions,” Hwang said.

The chair of the chief’s board, Dr. Bob McKenzie also spoke during the meeting to describe how the current board helps the department.

“We sit with the chief monthly, and also quarterly,” McKenzie said, “Or at any point where there’s something that needs to be done, we have a chance to talk about it and provide as much information as we can.”

McKenzie said the board has about 12 to 13 members, but there are more who will join the board in the future.

However, several council members agree that the chief’s advisory board is not enough to address major police issues that arise.

Council member Lydia Assefa-Dawson said the fact that she didn’t know the group existed until recently is indicative that the board needs to be more transparent to the public. She said the board should review any police complaints that arise and present that information to the council in a report format on a regular basis.

Council member Hoang Tran said the group’s scope of service is limited to advise the police chief.

“They don’t have any authority to make changes or hold the police department accountable,” Tran said. “So because of that I don’t think the current police advisory group is sufficient to address the major issues they are facing, such as the allegations of police misconduct. I am not aware of any major policy changes in the police department that were the results of this group.”

Council member Jesse Johnson said this is more of an advisory group to the chief rather than a policy group that can inquire about current policy, litigation and complaints.

“We need something separate that does that.”

Police accountability board?

Lyn Idahosa, a longtime resident of Federal Way, brought up the potential for a police accountability review board during the Sept. 18 council meeting.

“I’d like to ask that the mayor consider, while setting aside a portion of his personal discretionary budget … to assist in creating and maintaining a police accountability review commission,” she said.

Idahosa said that along with reviewing issues like the Hunter case, it could be a good way to tackle issues with community relations for the department.

“This committee could be utilized to tackle issues with our youth and how conflicts arise and are handled after-the-fact,” she said.

However, some residents are against the idea.

The Mirror asked residents how they feel about having a police accountability board via the Facebook page Federal Way Community Watch, and the majority were against the idea.

Diana Noble-Gulliford disagrees with the idea of an accountability board.

“No. There is already a citizens committee,” she said. “We’re not Seattle or Chicago.”

Anne Topano agrees with Noble Gulliford, mentioning the CALEA accreditation the department already goes through as a reason against an accountability board.

The Commission on Accredidation for Law Enforcement Agencies was founded in 1979 to help improve public safety services, according to their website.

Mayor Jim Ferrell, who does not support a police accountability board in Federal Way, said that during his time campaigning for his re-election, he spoke to several thousand residents, none of whom complained about the police department.

“The police enjoy widespread support here,” he said. Ferrell said no one he has heard from in the community, aside from the Hunter family and Lyn Idahosa, has reported any problems with the department.

“We have a model police department, as evidenced by our CALEA gold standard.”

Tyler Hemstreet, communications coordinator, said that out of the 321 law enforcement agencies in Washington, only seven have the CALEA accredidation.

Hemstreet also said that out of the 75,000 documented enforcement cases per year, about 70 of them are incidents officers have to repsond to with force.

“That is less than one tenth of one percent of our enforcement contacts.”

The department has also recieved five external citizens complaints involving use of force, Hemstreet said.

Some council members, including Assefa-Dawson and Mark Koppang, said they haven’t heard any major concerns from residents either regarding the police department.

However, others have spoken with residents about more pointed issues with police. Tran said he’s heard concerns regarding the department that there seems to be a lack of transparency and lack of sensitivity training in dealing with people with mental health issues and the homeless.

“The public has also stated concerns in regards to how the police department interacts with minorities,” Tran said.

Council members have also mulled whether Federal Way needs an independent police accountability review board. While many of them do not think a review board is necessary at this time, most of the council agreed that the police department needs some sort of independent oversight.

Assefa-Dawson said at this point she hasn’t heard there’s a need for a review board, but she is open to the idea.

“In light of recent incidents where the police’s conduct is being challenged in courts and the city is being sued for large sums of money, I believe that the community has come to expect that there will be some type of independent oversight of our police department,” Tran said. “What the police accountability review board may look like I don’t know yet as am still collecting and analyzing the pros and cons of different oversight models. I may consider a hybrid model between an advisory and full oversight models.”

Johnson said he “wouldn’t go as far as a police accountability review board” as those are usually more for larger cities. However, he said the city needs “something separate than the police chief heading it himself because there’s a bit of a conflict of interest with the chief recruiting members and setting the agenda. There needs to be a way for the community to have the ear of the department, but not as severe as a police accountability board.”

Other accountability measures

Council members are also looking at other measures the police department could take to address police accountability and other issues in the community.

“Given the fact that this community is made up of by almost 50 percent of people of color and immigrants, I think it would be beneficial for our officers to have additional training in cultural relevancy, mental health, and de-escalation tactics,” Tran said. “This will help them have a better understanding of the community they serve and to better prepare themselves when dealing with hostile situations. These additional training will enhance the relationship between the police department and the public.”

As an immigrant from Ethiopia, Assefa-Dawson said she understands that some immigrants are uncomfortable around police because of how they were raised in their native countries. She said police need to include more messaging to the public that “we are here to serve you.”

Johnson said some residents have expressed that they don’t feel they have the ear of the police department.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of common engagement in the eyes some of our community members,” he added, noting the police chief does a “great job” connecting to the community but he would like to see more coffee with the cops events on the weekends or in the evenings to be more inclusive of families.

Johnson is spearheading an initiative to potentially create a police inquiry board made up of residents. He said perhaps the council members could each nominate a resident to serve on the group, which may also include a retired police officer and a legal representative.

“Every time a complaint comes in to the police department, they can review it and provide suggestions and input,” Johnson noted. “It is a way for the community to feel like they have input on the matter.”

He said the inquiry board would have more power than the police chief’s current advisory group to affect change.

“It’s hard to push any type of systemic changes if you’re at the head and you’re running it,” Johnson said of Hwang and his current group. “That’s on the table right now. We’re discussing it as a council.”