If the events of the past week have taught us anything, it’s that now is not the time to take our foot off the gas of police accountability.
The devastating death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, has sparked widespread protests nationwide, including fiery confrontations between protesters and police in Seattle on Saturday night.
But while calls are growing nationwide for greater scrutiny of biased policing — particularly toward African Americans — Seattle officials are trying to go in the opposite direction. On May 7, the city and Trump’s Justice Department filed a joint motion to ask a judge to find that the city had met its obligations under a 2012 consent decree and release the department from remaining oversight.
The consent decree was put in place after a federal investigation found a “pattern or practice of excessive force,” and required the department to address allegations of excessive force and biased policing.
Calling the SPD a “transformed organization,” the joint motion said the city had met its oversight obligations but also said that it was unable to fully address outstanding “accountability issues in this filing, because it is now confronting an unprecedented public-health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Isn’t the midst of a pandemic — especially one that puts extraordinary stress on people experiencing homelessness and poverty, and people of color — exactly when we need more community responsiveness from the police?
After Floyd’s death, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best issued a statement saying due to the department’s high level of training and commitment to de-escalation, she was confident a similar incident would not happen in Seattle. But during weekend protests, demonstrators reported that one SPD officer put his knee on a protester’s neck (before another officer pushed it off); another punched a man on the ground; and a third sprayed a young girl with chemical spray. On Monday, the SPD Office of Police Accountability reported more than 12,000 complaints filed about the Seattle police response to weekend protests. Details are still emerging, but if we’re ever to know the truth of these allegations, SPD must be fully engaged and accountable.
Sadé Smith, a defense attorney and advocate based in King County, said that while the city says all the right things in public about accountability, transparency and racial justice, the promises come up empty. “What they’re doing behind closed doors is undermining the very policies that make those promises a reality.”
In response to the joint motion, the NAACP Seattle King County issued a statement May 11 opposing removal of consent decree oversight. “The City [of Seattle] has yet to address mechanisms in the police union contract that allow for officers … to have seemingly more rights than the citizens they are sworn to protect.”
Teri Rogers Kemp is a defense attorney and co-chair of NAACP Seattle King County’s police accountability committee. She said the police department has not shown it can be answerable to the community.
“How do you trust them to do it without oversight?” she asked. “We see across the country and right here in the city and in the state, the number of Black and brown people who are overwhelmingly in danger of the use of excessive force.”
To her point, a Seattle Times investigation in 2015 found that of 213 people killed by police in Washington state from 2005 to 2014, only one officer was criminally charged with illegal use of deadly force; he was later acquitted. In fact it was the only prosecution in at least 30 years. The investigation found those killed by police were disproportionately African American, and in King County, Black people were 20% of the deaths by police while only 6.3% of the population.
Since then, voters passed Initiative 940 in 2018 to remove some barriers that made it virtually impossible to prosecute police, but there remains deep concern about how it will be implemented. Then in February, Seattle police union members overwhelmingly elected a hard-line president, who said police were “under unreasonable levels of scrutiny both locally and nationwide” and led the campaign against Initiative 940.
Kemp said two recent SPD killings are putting accountability to the test. Regardless of the circumstances, she said, “We have to, as a community, begin to reject the idea that some of us don’t deserve those same constitutional protections as others of us do. [That idea] was the entire premise of slavery.”
While Floyd’s death might have provided the spark for the events of the past week, we have been collecting the kindling and fuel for the flames for centuries. Systemic racism is woven into the fabric of our society and the rage, frustration and heartbreak we have seen are a result.
The systemic biases and conditions that lead to racial disproportionality in policing, excessive use of force and mass incarceration are not going to change overnight. They were years in the making and will take years to disassemble. And they are not going to go away with good intentions alone. To dismantle them will require vigilance, oversight, accountability, transparency and a willingness to take a hard look at some of the worst parts of ourselves and our systems. Weakening that oversight is a step in the wrong direction to get there.