The city’s police are dealing with constant scrutiny from their bosses, the media and an increasingly hostile public.
COOL MORNING AIR fills the front seat of Seattle Police officer Melisande Manning’s SUV as she cruises down Bellevue Avenue toward Olive Street with her windows open, listening for sounds of trouble in the final moments before dawn.
A lone figure standing on the corner spots her and waves his arms as if he is adrift at sea. Manning hits the gas and activates her body microphone, automatically turning on two video cameras and audio-taping in her vehicle. She radios her location for backup as she swings her Ford Interceptor around so the passenger side abuts the sidewalk.
What happens next could alter public perceptions of the department, and determine whether the promised reforms in Seattle policing have become manifest. As the court-ordered monitor who has been tracking the department’s progress noted, “Every encounter on the street matters.”
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The man on the corner is wide-eyed, almost apologetic, as he approaches Manning’s car to say he has been robbed. He stops in confusion when Manning asks him, “Do you want to go to court on the matter?’’
He considers the question. Yes, he says.
Another officer arrives as Manning, who knows she is gathering information for a possible prosecution, climbs out of her car to meet the man on the sidewalk. His name is Eric. He’s 44 years old, homeless after being kicked out of his mother’s house, and without his brand-new iPhone 6 after a “young kid” on a bicycle threatened to smash him and the phone if he didn’t give it up.
Over the next 12 minutes, Manning pulls together a thin narrative from the disjointed facts Eric attaches to her questions. He apologizes for the “few drinks” he’s had and for short-term memory problems that make it difficult for him to recall the timing of the robbery: An hour ago? Two? Maybe longer. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
Manning broadcasts the bare-bones description of the suspect, admonishes Eric to keep his hands out of his pockets and assures him that no apologies are necessary.
“You did right by protecting yourself,’’ she tells him. “You don’t know what he’s capable of.” She advises him to call his cellphone carrier to have the phone turned off.
He asks Manning for a pen so he can remember to do that later. She declines. A pen can be used as a weapon. Instead, she jots down a phone number for him so, later, he can call in the stolen phone’s serial number to police.
He reaches into a backpack, and Manning reminds him once again to keep his hands visible. “More often than not,” she tells him, “I encounter people who do not have the best intentions toward me.”
“I respect you and honor you, and would not try to harm you in any way,’’ Eric says earnestly, sinking to his knees on the sidewalk as he removes an iPad from his backpack to call his mother for the stolen phone’s serial number.
Manning asks him to stand up. For all she knows, people in the apartments across the street are filming the encounter on their phones; she doesn’t want the situation — a mixed-race man, kneeling on the sidewalk at the feet of a police officer — to be misconstrued.
He still is kneeling when his mother answers. Her voice, amplified on the iPad speaker, drips with contempt. “Well, that didn’t take long,’’ she says. “Great job, genius.”
He smiles sheepishly at Manning and seems to shrink further into the pavement. Manning focuses her eyes straight over his head, creating an illusion of privacy as his mother berates him.
The entire encounter with the victim lasts 31 minutes. It ends with Manning reminding him to report the serial number, and wishing him well.
“Have a blessed day,’’ he replies.
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IT WILL BE one of the few times over the course of three shifts that Manning is treated with regard and kindness, an observation I share with her at the end of our first shift together.
“What is wrong with people?” I ask, surprised at the hostility displayed at even the most benign encounters.
This is before two black men were shot dead by police within a day of each other in early July, their gruesome deaths captured by witnesses’ phones, and broadcast around the world. Before a former Army reservist turned his rifle on police working a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas. As the cameras rolled, he killed five officers and wounded seven more, claiming it was in retaliation for the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The social earthquake from those killings and others underscores a stark new reality for police: Regardless of how well she does her job, Manning will be held accountable for the actions of every cop in every town and city in America. Every police encounter on the street does, indeed, matter, not just in Seattle, but everywhere.
It’s an impossible standard that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray addressed post-Dallas: “The stigmatization of any group, including police officers, leads to violence.”
Following the killings of police in Dallas, and later, Baton Rouge, La., Seattle police instituted new safety precautions, including the temporary use of two-person patrols, to deal with short- and long-term threats to officers.
“It’s much more scary when the threats against me and my co-workers are so prevalent, and when it’s OK to threaten a group of people who are tasked with laying down their life if need be,’’ Manning says a few days after the Dallas shootings.
She’s prayed and written about the killings, but doesn’t like talking about them.
“I don’t feel there’s anybody I trust enough to lay out my feelings without them being taken out of context or judged negatively,’’ she says.
Police make life-or-death decisions in seconds, not just once, but over and over; no one can understand what that’s like without experiencing it, she says.
Beyond the danger is festering contempt and disregard. As we drive Capitol Hill, it is boldly expressed on the street, even by people who seem barely old enough to vote.
Manning shrugs it off.
People she encounters in Seattle don’t like the police, she says. She learned that pretty quickly. It goes with the job, and she’s not going to take it personally. If she did, she would walk around frustrated all day. And frustration doesn’t get the job done.
She drives to 7-Eleven for a 5-hour Energy drink. “It’s putrid,” she says, “but it works.” She promised her family on the East Coast that she would cut back on them, but in the sleep-deprived world of the first shift — 3 a.m. to noon — promises sometimes take a back seat to staying alert, which means staying alive.
Lest anyone forget that, the photos or black-banded badges of 59 fallen officers dominate an entire wall at the East Precinct, where Manning is stationed. Among them: Seattle officer Timothy Brenton, who was shot dead in 2009 while sitting in his patrol car in the Central District, training a new officer.
“My goal,’’ says Manning, “is to get home safely, and to make sure my co-workers get home safely.”
At the end of her shift, Manning will upload the audio and video she has recorded that day to the department’s cloud for posterity, and as evidence of how well she’s done her job. This is what Seattle policing looks like in 2016: constant scrutiny by the brass, a civilian-led review unit, the media and a largely hostile public.
The job requires hyper-vigilance, and the strategic mind of a chess player able to think 15 moves ahead, to avoid being featured in case law or the evening news.
Manning, 35, used to be a cop in Wilmington, N.C. — three years on patrol, four as a detective. She was recruited by an undercover officer after she graduated from college, and was trying out different jobs, including one at a convenience store.
One day, a woman threw a tantrum after Manning refused to sell her cigarettes without an ID. Manning calmly called to the next person in line: “May I help you?” The woman stormed off, and returned with an ID.
“She threw it at me, and I sold her cigarettes,’’ Manning says.
A regular customer who witnessed the encounter told her, “You know, all you had to do was tell me to remove her, and I would have removed her.” Turned out, he was an undercover cop. He told Manning she should join the force.
“That’s funny,’’ she told him. “I don’t like the police. I’ve never had bad dealings with the police, but nobody likes the police. Why would I want to do that?”
He told her it was a good job, with good benefits, and that it was nothing like what she imagined.
“I applied, and I’ve been learning ever since about what being a police officer really is.”
IN 2013, MANNING VISITED a friend in Seattle and was stunned by the city’s beauty. She moved here; underwent 80 hours of instruction on state and local laws; and joined the Seattle Police Department, where she received additional training. Soon, she was working four days on and two days off, starting her patrol while most of us sleep.
In the three and a half years since Manning joined SPD, the department has overhauled its procedures in response to U.S. Justice Department findings of excessive force and “troubling practices” of biased policing. It has experimented with body cameras to document encounters between police and the public, and plans to expand that monitoring. A new chief, Kathleen O’Toole, changed the top command, updated the uniforms and vehicles, improved data collection, and made that data more transparent to the public. A civilian oversees complaints of police misconduct.
Last year, the department was recognized by U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch and the White House; the progress it has made is documented in reports by an independent federal monitor overseeing reforms.
The monitor’s reports describe significant progress in healing the fractured relationship with the city’s residents. Still, there’s work to do, especially in building trust among Seattle’s African-American and Latino populations, according to a January survey of community confidence.
To wit: 54 percent of Seattleites surveyed think SPD treats people differently according to their race. Nearly three-quarters of African Americans said they were treated worse than other groups. And while “less than 1 percent of Seattleites report being victims of excessive force,” 46 percent believe the police use excessive force, according to the report.
SPD recognizes that “just about every unit” includes officers who have poor “community engagement skills.” The monitor called that fact “concerning, given the impact a single officer can make on an entire community’s perceptions and trust.”
Manning, who is African American, understands what’s at stake. She also knows humans under stress are fallible.
“On life-threatening (calls), you have to make a decision in seconds, and you have a lot on your mind,’’ she says. “At some point, you’re going to make a mistake. If I make a mistake, I admit it.”
FOR MANNING, the difference in public attitude toward police in North Carolina and Seattle is striking: In her former home, people appreciate the police, Manning says. Here, a twenty-something sprawled out with a friend at a grocery store entryway with camping gear, a half-gallon of whole milk and a box of Cocoa Puffs responds with hostility when Manning drives slowly past him.
“What are you looking at?’’ he yells, his face contorting in anger.
She swings the SUV around, waits for backup.
“They will let me know what they want me to do,’’ she says, aware of the potential for escalation. When backup arrives, she approaches the men and explains why they have to clear out: The city contracts with businesses that display a “conditions of entry” sign, which obliges police to rouse people from doorways so business can commence. The men seem to get it, and agree to leave when they’re done with their cereal.
Manning issues them a trespass warning, and informs them they could be ticketed if they remain.
“I like to exercise my discretion,’’ Manning says. “When something happens, they will remember you, and they will remember how you treated them. I try to be a little reasonable, in general.”
Later, she explains: “People have a negative attitude toward law enforcement officers. If you get defensive about it, it can generate a harassment or bias complaint. If you see the outcome or the projected outcome, you can avoid it. I’m not going to give them the opportunity to bait me into something.”
The next day is more positive: A few people wave. A couple even responds when she greets them with “good morning.”
Although Manning moved here for the city’s beauty, her work days are overwhelmed by the ugliness of Seattle’s seemingly intractable problems: drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, the rush to violence (domestic and otherwise), mental illness, racism and poverty.
Over the course of three shifts, she will help save a woman from a methadone overdose; interrupt a fight between a man and a homeless woman who claimed the man tried to stab her; recover a stolen car; and help search a dark, abandoned building after a trespasser claims she heard screams coming from it.
She will back up an officer who is serving a “no-contact” order on a woman writhing on a hospital bed who threatened to jump onto Interstate 5 from the Yesler Way overpass earlier that morning. She will drive through Cal Anderson Park, making sure no one is sleeping under the play structure when children begin arriving. She will check for stolen cars, investigate alarms and drive though neighborhoods to let people know she’s out there.
In each case, she will do so with the windows lowered, listening for the sounds of trouble.
MANNING IS DRIVING DOWN a gravel alley near Crawford Place in what seems like a series of endless loops through east Capitol Hill. She’s halfway through the alley when an SUV with a plastic-covered rear window darts out from an apartment carport, throwing up gravel and narrowly missing a gray-haired man asleep under a filthy blanket atop a sofa wedged between two dumpsters.
It appears to be the same car that took off the day before under similar circumstances.
Manning checks the license plate on her computer: The plate is stolen, and the car has been associated with several strong-arm robberies. In the seconds it takes to conduct the search, the car has vanished.
Manning’s mind churns: It’s rush hour. Too many cars on the road to risk a chase. She radios a description of the car. It’s spotted at Westlake Center, then disappears again. There’s a good chance they live in the neighborhood. She’ll coordinate with other officers to keep an eye out.
Another officer sends kudos via text: “Good eye, Mel.”
The next day, Manning checks the same alley early in the morning. Nothing. When we pass the alley later that day, I suggest we take another swing through. No, she says: The sidewalks are full of people, and rush hour is in full swing. Plus, only six officers are patrolling the East Precinct right now, and the others are all tied up on calls. The bad guys have circumstances on their side, but a few days later, the tables turn.
Manning tells me the suspects were arrested, implicated in at least six robberies.
It’s a bit of excitement in an otherwise slow week.
In Seattle, she says, a cop’s job is “to primarily answer calls for service.”
Unlike the fire department, which can decline to answer calls it deems minor, Seattle police must respond to, and clear, every call.
In North Carolina, she says, “People didn’t call police unless it was a serious emergency. The general population’s definition of an emergency is different here.”
To say the least. Throughout the shifts, dozens of people call about “suspicious circumstances,” which include a man poking through garbage cans, another who looked into a home’s front window while walking by on the sidewalk and still another who found a safe place to sleep in an alley behind a garage.
When that call comes in at 9:26 a.m., Manning is headed to the Montlake Boulevard Market for breakfast.
“Hopefully, he’s just asleep,’’ she says as she turns her vehicle around to answer the call. She finds the man curled up against a garage with his head resting on a sleeping bag. He’s covered in dirt, but his cowboy boots appear new.
Another officer arrives as backup, and after a quick welfare check on the man, Manning returns to her vehicle. The person who complained doesn’t own the property on which the man is sleeping, so Manning has no authority to ask him to leave.
“He’s expressed he wants to stay here for now,’’ she says. “Clearly, he doesn’t want to leave because he’s found a comfortable, safe spot. He doesn’t need medical attention.”
The caller might not like the outcome, but there’s nothing more to be done.
“We don’t take sides,’’ she says. “The man is not causing a disturbance. I say, leave ’em alone. That’s my stance. Peace resulted in the end. I have a good, clear conscience, so I can rest when I go home and take a nap.”
Manning is near the end of her shift. The city is fully awake. She’s safe. The people on her watch stayed safe. There’s no one patting her on the back right now, no one who knows exactly what it took for her to keep the peace and go home alive. But Manning knows that today, she’s done her job, and she’s done it well.