Federal Way residents need the confidence in the police department that an independent police accountability board would provide. Being a police officer in today’s world is a very difficult and sometimes thankless job. Only the best should get the honor of wearing the uniform.
Mayor Jim Ferrell likes to say the police have a broad base of support. Many in this community don’t share that view. This is a changing community and with change comes the need for new safeguards to ensure police support comes from all the different cultures that make up this city. Not having that support makes getting and maintaining respect more difficult. For the safety of all our residents, and our police officers, our city leaders need to ensure fairness and equity between the police and the residents they serve.
We are a different community than we were 40 years ago.We’re not even the same city we were eight years ago.
The 2010 Census listed 57 percent of the population as white, with an estimate of one-third as minority. A closer look at the number suggests that 41 percent were people of color, and the 2020 census will likely change those numbers in a manner that makes Federal Way a minority-majority city. Over 100 different languages are spoken in our school district and the cultural diversity is particularly noticeable by the restaurants and shops that have opened to serve them, along with the increase in signage printed in different languages. To many, English is their second language. Our voters pamphlet is now available in several different languages. The change is coming; rather than resist, ignore it and do things as they have always been done, we need to get ahead and embrace it.
We have witnessed the city police lose a $640,000 lawsuit for use of force, and we’ve seen the filing of another lawsuit regarding the killing of a resident who may have been having a mental heath episode. Both men were of color. Whether you agree with either lawsuit or not, the message is unmistakable. The national issue of police and how they interact with people of color has arrived in Federal Way. In both cases, the city says its officers did nothing wrong.
Approval of a police oversight board could help inspire the trust of leery residents, along with many who have come from a country where the police are feared as a political extension of the government.
Five members of the City Council, led by Jesse Johnson and Hoang Tran, have been looking at different models to consider. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, they have encountered the very resistance to change that makes the change necessary. If everything in the police department is working as it should, there is no reason not to lift the veil that separates the police from those they serve. If it isn’t, then there is more reason to look for independent review.
It is well known that Ferrell courts the Police Guild politically, as do many other candidates for office. Their endorsement has value because of the respect that we give them. But Ferrell, Chief Andy Hwang and the guild need to count transparency as one of their assets, not secrecy, because a significant level of our community have had a police experience here or elsewhere that was not positive.
The chief points to his Chief’s Call, which is an advisory board with no authority. Frankly, that is not enough.
Johnson and Tran have looked at a compromise that would establish a board but not give it teeth. Again, that is not enough. The council needs to establish a board that has the authority to review and add or change discipline in matters of force.
According to the city, there have been three police-involved shootings in the last two years and force is used about 70 times per year out of over 75,000 contacts. While the numbers are small, they are big enough to warrant independent review. According to the mayor’s office, five complaints have been investigated and it was determined that the police acted properly in each. Recall that was also the internal finding by the police for the Hunter case they just lost, and the Hernandez shooting. The city may eventually win both cases. But the warning is clear. Outside review is needed, and had a board been in place earlier, two lawsuits might have been avoided.
A review board would not replace the existing internal system, but should provide a check and balance through independent review of their conclusions. The board, appointed by the council, could be made up people familiar with police work and human services. Good candidates would be retired judges, attorneys, police chiefs, former directors of human resources, former elected officials or others with appropriate knowledge. It would be important that it be a good mix of backgrounds, genders and cultures, not just a group of people with connections to the department. Having a mix of board members who don’t live here would also help with objectivity and independence.
But what a police accountability board can’t be is forgotten or set aside, just because the people who need the oversight don’t want it. With opposition from Ferrell, the police chief and the guild, how many council members will have the courage to act and do what’s right, rather than what is politic? In addition to Johnson and Tran, Mark Koppang, Martin Moore and Lydia Assefa-Dawson said they were interested in considering an accountability board when facing the Hunter family. How many will be there when it counts? How many community members will have the courage to face the council, mayor and chief and demand change like the Hunter family did?
If the council doesn’t have the courage to address this issue now, with a court loss and a loss of life, they will have to address it later and the uproar will be louder. The time is right — don’t let it pass by.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.