Many cities have made front page news regarding racial issues between their residents and their police department.
White officers shooting Black people or other minorities, or questionable “use of force,” typically is the cause for resident concerns. But systemic racism is frequently just beneath the surface.
Sometimes there is a formal complaint, lawsuit, or protesting by residents to get City Hall’s attention. Frequently, the mayor or city manager schedules public meetings with community leaders or an influential group such as Black Lives Matter or the Black Collective to ensure an open discussion and some type of resolution.
Trust in city leaders’ ability to listen is crucial to Black residents’ participation and candor. Other topics such as the city’s commitment to equity and inclusion, body cameras, training, officers’ personnel files, internal reviews of the circumstances and the need for outside independent investigations of officer-involved complaints quickly become part of the discussion. If city leaders don’t answer questions openly and honestly, or if they appear to defend police at the expense of the residents’ concerns, it will be very difficult to gain the residents’ trust and cooperation.
Some cities are moving ahead on body cameras — and they are the wave of the future. Auburn had two cases in the past few years, and the King County Prosecutor arrested officer Jeffrey Nelson for the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey. Nelson pleaded “not guilty.” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus had already made some changes in the police department, including the chief, and hired a staff person to work on equity and inclusion.
Kent’s Police Chief Rafael Padilla put together a plan for improving relationships with residents of color that includes several new policies and has elected officials’ support. However, recently a federal judge declined to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit filed by the victim’s parents against Kent and one of its officers for the 2017 shooting death of Giovonn Joseph-McDade that raised questions about whether the officer had a reason to fear for his life or the public’s safety, as an inquest jury had determined.
Kent will defend itself, but as the process unfolds, Kent leaders will need to show objectivity and listening skills. This isn’t a choice between the police department and Black residents. The goal is to improve the level of trust for both. It may be uncomfortable, but it is crucial to building community unity. In another case, Kent will be able to demonstrate why body cameras are important for providing the truth after a controversial arrest ends up serving as a training tool to demonstrate questionable police tactics. The chief’s transparency and willingness to confront errors will be important to residents.
Federal Way continues to struggle with finding solutions that will improve minority residents’ view of the police department after the high-profile Josiah Hunter case. Hunter’s family sued police for excessive force with a chokehold and won. The police department later dropped the chokehold tactic. The city appealed and Hunter won again. How police treat minorities had been an issue in the 2019 Federal Way City Council races.
Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell has held three Zoom meetings with the Federal Way Black Collective members and the public. The first one was a disaster as Ferrell took over the meeting and didn’t give the group an opportunity to raise their concerns. He also told them everything was fine in the police department because the department was accredited.
However, several participants held different views. At the second meeting, the representatives for the Black Collective were able to raise some concerns, but Ferrell said no to many, including an independent accountability board that would review police cases of shootings and “use of force.”
Currently some cases are investigated by the Valley Independent Investigative Team, which consists of police officers from other departments. Ferrell has previously opposed body cameras and staff for equity and inclusion, but the city council did add a part-time position in the city budget, and body cameras were added to the legislative wish list.
By the third meeting, the residents were tired of Ferrell’s “everything is fine in the police department.” One participant said Ferrell was “tone deaf,” suggesting he wasn’t listening or not understanding the group’s concerns. Afterward, Ferrell said they had citizen participation through the “Chief’s Call,” an advisory group to the police chief with no authority. Another participant in the meeting said he was invited to join the Chief’s Call, but he felt like it was a token offering.
One of the most well known cases of “use of force” in Federal Way is the Hunter case. It was heard by a jury and the city lost. The city appealed and lost again. After settlement costs and fees it cost the city close to a million dollars. The officer had other issues in his file that suggested he should be disciplined or possibly fired. The Black Collective group questioned why the officer wasn’t, but Ferrell wouldn’t discuss the case other than to say he disagreed with the group.
Ferrell is politically close to the police union, and the comment came across as both defensive and insensitive as Sanetta Hunter, Josiah Hunter’s mother, was one of the participants. She works for the county prosecutor and serves on the governor’s policing and racial justice task force.
Federal Way’s internal review of the case did not find fault with the officer, but the city lost in court twice, and a reading of both cases raised significant questions about why the officer wasn’t disciplined. Ferrell’s disinterest in discussing the case will increase suspicion and may undermine city efforts at improving relationships. And Ferrell is the one that put the case in the public realm by leading a discussion with the chief and the city attorney at a city council meeting after the first loss in an attempt to retry the case in the most favorable light for Ferrell, the department and the officer — and to criticize the judge. He also used the occasion to announce the appeal, which the city lost again.
Ferrell’s refusal to discuss a high-profile case that most everyone knew about through media coverage, and with Hunter’s mother listening as one of the participants, it was too much for many of the others. The questions became harder and more pointed. One asked about misconduct by police, and Ferrell said, “We don’t allow misconduct by our officers.” However, a reading of trial documents suggests the officer’s conduct was open to question. And Mrs. Hunter had just raised a question about the officer’s integrity. The case doesn’t need to overshadow the discussion, but the group is entitled to answers and to know the why the city made certain decisions.
The moderator wisely took a short timeout. If Ferrell wants to work with communities of color and particularly Black people, he is going to have to be much more open and actually act like he is listening to their concerns.
Ferrell was formerly a King County Prosecutor and his political link to the police department is well known. His budgets usually include hiring more police officers almost every year, even when crime is down. To his credit, Ferrell did not lose his temper, and he closed by saying he would try listen more. Ferrell has followed through on a couple of proclamations for Black Lives Matter and Black History Month. But after a couple hundred years of Black Americans getting shot or abused by white police officers, substantive policies like body cameras and accountability boards are needed to demonstrate that the mayor is actually listening.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.