History continues to repeat itself as another black man dies at the hands of a white police officer. Could it happen here? It almost did!
In September 2014, Josiah Hunter and a friend, both Black men, had stopped at an AM-PM on Pacific Highway South to help at an accident, when Hunter found himself in a “chokehold” (lateral vascular neck restraint, or LVNR) for resisting and was arrested by Federal Way Police officer Kris Durrell, who is white.
In a six-day trial, the jury found in favor of Hunter’s “excessive force” claim. Though the political support between the police guild and former prosecutor and current Mayor Jim Ferrell, and other elected officials in City Hall, is well known, I was surprised the city appealed the verdict as the jury strongly supported Hunter and City Hall was squandering a chance to demonstrate accountability and was creating a racial divide between people of color and their government.
Then, as if to prove the point of who elected leaders would believe, in 2018 in a political maneuver, Ferrell, Police Chief Andy Hwang and City Attorney Ryan Call used much of a council meeting to “retry “ the case on public television in the most favorable light for Ferrell, the department, and the officer.
City Attorney Call unintentionally acknowledged the real goal of supporting the police after the court loss when he said “when viewed objectively, from a police perspective, the two were acting strangely.” The police perspective is by definition not objective. It is an opinion; the jury is objective and they believed Hunter.
But the city fared no better at the appeal court.
In a decision announced recently, the city lost again. Worse, the courts decisions raised questions of the soundness of the department’s internal investigation, which had cleared the officer. Both the district and appeal court decisions paint a picture of racism and shocking officer behavior.
District Court Judge Pechman wrote regarding the jury’s findings that “manufacturing a trespass and using deadly force against him showed ‘reckless or callous indifference’ to Mr. Hunter’s Constitutional rights or was motivated by ‘evil motive or intent.’”
Even after the final appeal court verdict, the city attorney seemed to brag that the officer had “not been disciplined.” Hunter’s mother, who works in the King County Prosecutor’s Office said “this officer has an extensive use of force record and the city was aware of it.”
White people naively thought “equal rights for all” had been settled back in the 1960s.
Black and brown people know better because every time they go to the store, they don’t know if they will get home safely.
The recent death of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis with his knee on Floyd’s neck was a bitter and painful reminder of Eric Garner, whose last words were also “I can’t breath” and died from a police chokehold in New York.
Last week, Rayshard Brooks was shot at a Wendy’s in Atlanta, and prior to that, Breonna Taylor, was shot several times in her bed in Kentucky by police with a “no knock warrant.” Many Black people, including some who live in Federal Way, believe the real crime is being born Black.
Are police departments filled with racists? No, and Federal Way police did not use the same method as Minneapolis.
Federal Way’s LVNR cuts off blood flow, not airways. As Lt. Ovens testified in the Hunter case, “Seattle Police department considers neck and carotid artery restraints to be deadly force and does not train its officers in the use.” Since Floyd’s death, many departments are restricting or stopping the use of any type of neck hold, including LVNR.
Police reform is long overdue, because in this country, people of color face as much risk from the police as they do from criminals: A chokehold in New York, a knee on the throat in Minnesota, shootings in Missouri, Kentucky and Georgia.
The Hunter case isn’t the only time the city has been sued for the actions of it’s officers, but this latest episode will cost the taxpayers over $655,117 plus interest. The city council approved the payment with nary a word of discussion or concern about Mr. Hunter, even though expert testimony at trial said the “hold” could have killed him. How many council members actually read both court decisions? Or did they rely on briefings from the mayor, police chief and city attorney?
We are a changing region. Federal Way has over 100 different languages spoken in its school district, which is among the most diverse in the nation. We will likely become a minority-majority city after the 2020 census.
But the real “equality” issue is developing community trust that everyone, regardless of skin color, will have the same opportunity to achieve the American dream of a good education, health care, a good job, and affordable housing.
That is not happening for many people of color. Those in authority need to listen to what it’s like to be Black or brown or have English as a second language.
The police department’s guild packs political clout with their endorsements for mayor, city council, or the state legislature, but white tolerance of police misconduct is misplaced and harmful.
In addition to trust and better opportunities, an independent Police Oversight Board that can review any “use of force” by the police department, with the authority to act and hold the department and it’s employees accountable, is needed.
Currently only police shootings, officer-caused serious injury, and in-custody death are referred to outside agencies for investigation. All others are investigated internally.
That needs to change.
In the Federal Way City Council elections of 2017 and 2019, the question of an oversight board was debated. Five members of the city council — Jesse Johnson, Hoang Tran, Mark Koppang, Martin Moore, and Lydia Assefa-Dawson — said they were interested in considering an accountability board while facing the Hunter family’s request in a council meeting.
But after the meeting, when the mayor, chief and guild opposed the idea, nothing happened. Some council members suggested that the “Chief’s Call” served that purpose. That is political spin and is not accurate.
The members of the Chief’s Call have no independent authority to investigate anything. They serve primarily as a community sounding board, and are appointed by the chief.
The chief points out that the department is accredited. But that hasn’t stopped the use of force, which according to police occurs about 70 times per year and it didn’t stop the officer’s treatment of Hunter.
If a complaint is made, most of the time the officer’s actions are sustained, just as they were in the Hunter case. Statistically 70 incidents is not a high number, but it is high enough to warrant independent outside review rather than lose more lawsuits.
The court cases provide examples that suggest a poor investigation had been done. Some examples noted by the appeal decision: Hunter, “did not offer even passive resistance to Durrell when Durrell pushed him against the car door and put Hunter’s arms against his back before choking him,” “nor did he resist as he was being choked.” “Extensive expert testimony confirmed that the chokehold techniques Durrell deployed against Hunter could have caused death or serious injury.”
Durrell did not describe another witness as a “white male,” but he described Hunter as a “Black male” in his report. Though “evidence of racial animus is not relevant to the use of force, it is relevant to whether the defendant acted with the requisite evil motive to justify punitive damages which were at issue before the court.”
Punitive damages, and the $655,117 price tag, should be a strong message to city leaders that change is needed. Will they? So far the only change is that “neck restraints should now not be used as a routine method for controlling people who are not wanted or are not engaging in physically harmful behavior.”
They shouldn’t be used at all!
The district court also allowed a statement for impeachment that “Durrell had once reported to his fellow officers that he lacked control over his use of force.” He used a dangerous hold for an “exceptionally minor infraction.” Recently, Ferrell said he agreed with Minneapolis for “holding the officers accountable,” but the officer in the Hunter case was not held accountable. No discipline.
Our population is made up of 30-40% people of color. We have elected them to the state legislature, the city council and the school board. They can teach us a lot if we listen.
But they have a right to the same standards the rest of us expect, that the color of their skin is not a reason to arrest them and to earn community trust. An independent organization should investigate police for any level of force on anyone because enough people have already died.
Federal Way is at a cross roads in its race relations, but many city leaders appear oblivious to what is going on around them. State or federal government may take the decision out of their hands.
A white officer killing a Black person will happen again, and it will happen here unless changes are made and understanding of what it’s like to be Black or brown improve.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.