Nationwide, shootings of black men and Dallas police officers widened the racial divide. In Seattle, police reforms show a path forward.
A depressing new New York Times/CBS News poll places the nation’s mood on race relations at the nadir of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict. The chasm of trust widened by the video recordings of African-American men dying in police custody, and the killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
We cannot allow the flames of racial division so easily kindled on social media to burn out of control. This inflection point in race relations — particularly between African-American communities and police — demands a spirit of openness, coupled with the type of diligent reforms that Seattle police have already begun, but not finished.
President Obama’s eulogy of the slain Dallas police officers eloquently captured the risks, and the work ahead.
“If we cannot even talk about these things — honestly and openly — not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle,” Obama said. “So in the end, it is not about finding policies that work; it’s about forging consensus; fighting cynicism; and finding the political will to make change.”
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Responsible, constitutional policing is a cornerstone of society, and that work can’t be done without trust and respect in the police.
Seattle has obviously not bridged the divide, as seen in the radically different perspectives on the February shooting of Che Taylor in the Wedgwood neighborhood. But we should also step back and consider the progress toward a reformed Seattle police force since the city and federal Department of Justice signed a consent decree in 2012.
Seattle has dramatically reformed its training. Officers are now taught how to de-escalate incidents and avoid the type of takedowns documented in the fatal July 5 shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Officers now are taught to spot their own implicit biases, and how to respond to people’s actions, and not to stereotypes based on factors such as the person’s clothing. And officers now routinely get Crisis Intervention Training to calm people in psychiatric distress; such incidents are on pace to occur 10,000 times in Seattle this year alone.
Those gains have not produced some sanguine utopia of policing in Seattle. The tone-deaf social media posting about Black Lives Matter by Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president Ron Smith — which led in part to his resignation — underscore the need for the department to more deeply listen to the valid outrages aired by the movement.
The next steps for police reform in Seattle are clear. The department needs a more coherent accountability system. The Seattle City Council should work to replace its often-ignored civilian police auditor, who reviews disciplinary matters, with a more robust inspector general, tasked with monitoring the entire department.
It also needs strong citizen input. The Seattle Community Police Commission, created by the federal consent decree, has provided valuable insight on the “implicit bias” training and has been a bridge between the department and frustrated communities. It should become permanent, and be heard.
The public also has a duty not to just snipe at police from the corners of social media. On a daily basis, officers confront the consequences of an inadequate human services system while facing real risks to their safety. Instead of sniping, ride along with an officer. Join a Seattle police advisory group.
We must not retreat from the shared responsibility to good policing.