Minorities in Federal Way want action, not talk | Roegner

Community members express concern about police accountability.

Washington is a blue state — so blue that the Democrats are starting to challenge each other from the left.

Federal Way has grown and changed into an active and diverse community where different cultures have stepped up to leadership roles in the school district, city council and state Legislature.

Over 100 people representing a cross section of our city attended an evening Zoom meeting in late July to demonstrate their commitment to improving the community and request support from City Hall. For several years, many have tried to get Mayor Jim Ferrell and the Federal Way City Council to listen to their concerns about the police department, legal system, and the need for additional programs for minority youth — and have not felt like they were being heard.

This meeting was long overdue. It is unfortunate that it has taken the death of more Black people at the hands of white police officers, along with national and local protests, to make it necessary. Some met in smaller groups with Ferrell in an effort to help him understand what Black Lives Matter means and to ask that he fly their flag, which he declined to do. Supporters of Black Lives Matter include whites and many other races.

Ferrell did agree to a public meeting so everyone who had issues could raise them in the same forum.

However, the meeting got off to a rocky start as Ferrell and the attendees had different goals in mind. Ferrell had lined up speakers including Police Chief Andy Hwang; Bob McKenzie, chair of the Chief’s Call, an advisory group of community members who meet with the chief; and Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson, among others. Many of those in attendance were unhappy and felt Ferrell hijacked the meeting for his own purposes without including anyone else in the agenda planning. Tirzah Idahosa said: “Our discussion was that we wanted the meetings to be for us, by us, not you taking over the meeting.” Some felt Ferrell had selected speakers as a way to run out the clock on the two-hour meeting and avoid answering difficult questions.

According to city staff, Ferrell felt a need to “educate” the attendees, but the approach reflected his own bias as a former county prosecutor — and mirrored his and Chief Hwang’s ongoing defense that the police department is beyond reproach because it is accredited. Many attendees were not impressed with the accreditation because they have heard that answer repeatedly and feel they are a target because of their skin color.

Several attendees said choosing the police chief and the judge showed a lack of any understanding of what people of colors’ experience with police and the judicial system has been like for decades. One attendee politely asked the judge to stop talking. Another asked Ferrell why he always wanted to hire more police even when crime is down. Though her comment was not aimed at anyone, Councilmember Lydia Assefa-Dawson said she has not always felt supported when she has brought up issues.

Unlike most white parents, many in attendance make a point of reminding their children to avoid interaction with police every time they leave the house. Many have a story to tell that they believe reflects more about how police react to the color of their skin, rather than the law.

Several were aware of the Josiah Hunter case, in which the Hunter family successfully sued the city after an officer used a lateral vascular neck restraint on their son in 2014. Ferrell, the chief, the city attorney and some council members have continued to defend the hold and officer for the past six years, even though police recently discontinued the use of the hold. A reading of the case suggests both judge and jury felt race had played a role in the arrest.

In talking with several attendees after the meeting, many Black leaders felt the need to ensure elected officials know what actions and outcomes they expect on meeting agendas and policy changes.

For several years, Ferrell and a majority of the city council have been myopic supporters of the police department with accountability questions rarely asked, including appealing the Hunter case and losing at the next level as well. Ferrell is not likely to forget his prosecutor training or the political support from the Federal Way Police Officers’ Guild he has received and will want again next year when he runs for re-election.

Also, rather than put up the Black Lives Matter flag, which would have been controversial to many of his supporters, Ferrell put up the Juneteenth flag — which isn’t controversial because many whites don’t know what it represents. After the meeting, some participants said they also remembered Ferrell’s skirmishes with two important Black community leaders: Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Campbell over the cost of school buildings, and former State Rep. Kristine Reeves over money she got for Federal Way’s homeless that Ferrell spent in Burien.

Many attendees said they want body cameras as a budget priority. But Chief Hwang and Ferrell’s office have already said no to body cameras unless the Legislature pays for them. That is a familiar strategy the city has used for years as a way to avoid spending money on things the community wants, while Ferrell and the council’s priority has been to achieve an arbitrary number of police officers. The city puts the item on the legislative ask list, then if it doesn’t get funded, the city can blame the Legislature and avoid the issue for another year. Supporters of change need to put pressure on Ferrell and the council to fund them with the city budget, even if it is small amount each year, or it is unlikely to happen.

Other attendees are still angry that the police officer in the Hunter case was never disciplined. They want an independent review board for use of force cases with real authority to investigate. The police union would likely oppose the idea, as has Ferrell in the past, even though it would be a good way to improve transparency and avoid internal bias. Renton is considering something like that now. Federal Way, along with other cities, is in a dispute with the King County Executive on inquest procedures, many of which involve police and people of color.

Had the speakers not taken so much time, the meeting would have accomplished more. The attendees still need time to have their say about how they feel the city treats them, and there will only be enough time between now and next year’s elections for two to three meetings. But the consensus was that the meeting held promise and attendees were looking forward to meeting again in October when they can state more of their issues and concerns.

Assefa-Dawson later said it “looks like the current temperature was what was needed to move the needle in the right direction.” She spoke for many who want real change. But Ferrell and some council members may only want enough cosmetic change to get through the next election cycle. The Black Lives Matter group is asking him and some council members to hold their political support group (police officers) accountable. Will they?

This could be a real test about whether city government has matured enough to understand what inclusion truly means.

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