Based on comments from elected officials and police, the Black Lives Matter movement is picking up political momentum just in time for the 2021-2022 budget cycle and next year’s city elections.
After several hundred years, we finally appear to be getting closer to the broad inclusion we say is part of us. But what impact will be achieved, and can it be sustained?
Most suburban cities have either a strong mayor form of government or a city manager. If there are additions, changes, or subtractions that need to be made in city budgets, now is the time to start lobbying your elected officials to make them because these officials will be proposing their recommendations in a few weeks. The city council will hold hearings in the fall to take public input, and vote on a final budget in December.
There is significant diversity in the suburbs, particularly in South King County. Most residents have seen the videos from Minneapolis and Atlanta along with the impact Black Lives Matter has had on Seattle. Some cities even had local protesters march through downtown on behalf of George Floyd and protest the treatment of people of color by police. Despite the frustration we see in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and even Seattle, no suburban city is likely to defund its police department.
But as the debate over how police treat people of color grows the next few years, ask yourself: To achieve inclusion, what should the police department of the future look like?
Because that is the question your mayor, city manager, police chiefs and city council members should be asking themselves right now. It is not an easy question to answer, and change won’t happen overnight.
But now is the time for the debate. It should be thoughtful and measured, where all sides have their input — residents, liberals, conservatives and the police union.
In the past, the answer has always been “just hire more police officers.” But that won’t work any longer. We have too many people whose experience with the police isn’t positive, and they comprise much of the support for Black Lives Matter, although the support now includes many cultures. Adding more police sends the wrong message to people of color in our communities who need to be part of the discussion.
What do you want your police department to do? What should be its priorities? The primary reason we know what happened in Minneapolis and Atlanta is because of a video — otherwise it would have been a white officer’s word against a black suspect’s word. We already know how that has historically turned out. Do you want your police officers to have body cameras so the city and the public will know what happened in a controversial moment?
Seattle and Spokane police officers already have body cameras, and Tacoma will have them in early 2021. The cost to Tacoma for 255 officers is $1.2 million and about $800,000 per year in the future. After these big three cities have their body cameras, it is just a matter of time, or one controversial shooting, until local political pressure results in all suburban cities having them. And knowing what happened when a police officer shoots someone should be a priority to everyone.
Staff in some cities are already engaged in internal debates and researching ideas and costs. Here are a few of their ideas along with existing policies for residents to think about for their city.
• The Renton Police Department, with over 80,000 calls for service each of the past two years, had 103 uses of force in 2018 and 107 uses of force in 2019. The department has dashboard cameras, but still have officer body cameras on the list for discussion this year for several reasons including public transparency, officer safety, training and accountability. Also up for discussion is a Citizen Review Board or something like it, which could help eliminate bias with its independence and authority. Other cities might want to take a look at that idea. Renton considers neck restraints to be lethal force and does not use them.
• Kent is a majority-minority city and already has body cameras for its officers, but do not have in-vehicle cameras. They do not use chokeholds. Kent has invested its resources in trying to get to the root causes of crime by establishing services for communities of color and connecting the homeless with services through block grant allocations and support from the general fund.
• Auburn’s police chief is new, having come on board as COVID-19 hit. Auburn has dash cameras for patrol cars and provides body cameras for the officers and staff that don’t operate patrol vehicles. The department had 86,062 calls for service in 2019 with 214 uses of force. Auburn allows the vascular neck restraint if the officer faces an imminent threat of death. Auburn requires officers to provide a verbal warning before shooting, and also has a requirement to intervene and report excessive force.
• Federal Way recently discontinued use of the vascular neck restraint after an expensive court ruling. The mayor’s communications person said Federal Way looked at body cameras and thought $1.1 million plus $450,000 in annual systems costs was too expensive. They also figure one or two staff members to keep the system operational and one staff member to handle public disclosure requests.
Many of the calls to police really need a social worker or a mental heath specialist. None of the cities have staff fitting that description, although they have access to professionals through local organizations. Some fire departments have added those positions. Should police add those skills to their staff to assist police? They would cost less, and it could reduce the need for lethal force. Do you favor your city negotiating a residency requirement for officers with the union? Should your city rethink having police officers in the schools? All cities require de-escalation training and anti-bias training along with a long list of other required training, but the hours allocated may need to increase in some cities to get community support.
All cities are engaged in assisting those less fortunate through social programs, but it may take additional resources to develop a multi-year plan to work on the root causes of crime such as poverty, drugs, mental health, lack of education opportunities, family wage jobs and affordable housing.
What areas do you want to fund? You can make a difference if you are prepared. Who knows — you might decide to run for office next year.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.