In response to alarms raised in recent days by protesters about Seattle police officers covering their badge numbers with black mourning bands, Police Chief Carmen Best issued a directive Thursday telling all officers to display the numbers.
At the same time, Mayor Jenny Durkan rejected a demand by some people demonstrating against institutional racism and police killings of Black people that half of the Seattle Police Department’s budget be redirected to community programs and social services.
And the area’s largest labor group threatened to remove the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) later this month unless the union admits that racism is a problem in law enforcement and agrees to address that problem in negotiating its next contract with the city.
Meanwhile, protesters gathered for a seventh night, with activity again clustered near the Police Department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill, but also weaving in a march through surrounding neighborhoods. They hoped their presence on the streets would push leaders in City Hall and beyond to make more changes, quickly.
“I’m just so tired of every single month you wake up and see another police officer kill someone,” demonstrator Sepand Nizkands said. “At this rate it’s never going to stop … I don’t want anyone else to go through this.”
At one point, as the crowd stretched for at least a full block, the protesters kneeled in silence and the only sound was a helicopter buzzing above.
Some Seattle demonstrators began to express concern about the mourning bands they saw officers wearing Saturday, saying the black strips worn over badge numbers to honor slain cops (here and elsewhere) could make it difficult to identify those engaged in misconduct.
Best and Durkan initially defended the practice, noting officers also wear name tags. But they bent on the issue as criticism continued to mount this week, vowing to work toward a new policy Wednesday and then taking action Thursday.
“This afternoon, I will be issuing a special order to address this,” Best announced in a news conference with the mayor.
“All officers will have their badge numbers prominently displayed,” she said, adding officers would continue to pay homage — by wearing the mourning bands slightly higher or lower on their badges.
“We want to make sure we are being transparent and people don’t have the belief we are in any away trying to hide who we are.”
Disseminating the directive might take “a day or so,” Best said.
She and Durkan hailed a large Capitol Hill crowd that demonstrated past midnight Wednesday and dispersed peacefully.
“We will always meet peace with peace,” said Best, who visited barricades near the East Precinct to speak with protesters Wednesday amid a surge in public complaints about officers escalating encounters with pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang devices.
The Martin Luther King County Labor Council, in a new resolution Thursday warning SPOG to address racism, also called on Durkan to amend her approach to the protests.
Though Best and Durkan repeatedly have blamed violent troublemakers for sowing chaos, Durkan canceled Seattle’s curfew Wednesday night and spoke Thursday about modified police tactics.
The Police Department moved some officers away from the barricades and asked protesters to stop each other from throwing bottles, the mayor said. They listened when citizen journalist Omari Salisbury suggested they set up a sound system to communicate with the demonstrators, the mayor said, not addressing why that step wasn’t taken days ago.
Durkan mentioned “a powerful moment” when officers lowered their shields and protesters lowered the umbrellas they had brought to guard against pepper spray. “We need more dialogue,” she said.
“I’m grateful there were no injuries and arrests,” she said. “That must remain the goal … I have every confidence that can be achieved.”
Out in the streets Thursday, Nina Kimn said she was encouraged to see how the demonstrators were caring for one another, how diverse the crowd was and by the positive attitude in the air.
Protesting for a second night, Kimn said she did feel some concern about being in such a large group during the coronavirus pandemic. But as someone who is able-bodied, privileged and healthy, she said, “this is the most pressing thing. It takes precedence over my own health.”
Asked at her news conference about the demand delivered by community leader Nikkita Oliver and other organizers Wednesday that the Police Department’s budget be curtailed, Durkan said every Seattle agency, including the Police Department, “will see cuts” this year as she and the City Council seek to close a projected budget gap.
But she said no to a 50% reduction.
“We will not defund by 50%, but we will make sure that we have a level of commitment to community that we can make an investment that is proportionate to the needs and that those communities that have been left behind and locked out of the system can see that we as a city have heard the voices,” the mayor said.
The Police Department’s budget is more than $400 million this year, accounting for about a quarter of Seattle’s general-fund budget. City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales joined Oliver and other activists Wednesday in calling for that spending to be reduced.
The money would be better spent on job training, restorative-justice programs, youth programs, homeless services and public housing that can prevent problems than on a militarized police force, they contend.
“Thing that actually improve the lives of our neighbors,” Morales said. “That’s how we should be investing our money.”
Facing similar questions, Los Angeles leaders announced Wednesday proposals to redistribute $250 million, including up to $150 million in police spending, to disenfranchised communities.
Durkan said she would seek to balance police and community needs.
“True public safety is not just when a police officer shows up to the door,” she said. “True public safety comes from good prenatal care, access to child care and preschool, access to real education and economic opportunities, to health care and to affordable housing.”
Yet Durkan indicated she wants to mostly maintain police spending. “When people dial 911, they want the Police Department and the Fire Department to show up,” she said. “We have to make sure we have enough people and resources to make that true.”
More pressure could come from the politically influential Labor Council, however, with moves that could alter the landscape for police reform in Seattle.
An umbrella group for more than 150 unions and 100,000 workers, the group has supported SPOG’s right to bargain against certain police accountability measures while also serving as a key ally for Durkan, having endorsed the mayor in her 2017 campaign.
But many Black, indigenous and other people of color who are union members have been petitioning for SPOG’s removal, and the resolution passed by the group’s executive board Thursday attributes policing problems to systemic racism rather than “bad apples.” It calls on SPOG to acknowledge that — or else.
The union also must participate in an effort “ensuring that contracts do not evade legitimate accountability when professional standards are not followed,” the resolution says.
Should SPOG fail to meet those demands, the resolution says the executive board will recommend that the Labor Board’s delegates remove the union from the group.
Also demanding the mayor commit to “becoming anti-racist and understanding the legacy of oppression tied to law enforcement,” the resolution says Durkan should bargain a new SPOG contract that includes accountability provisions previously approved by the City Council.
Lending support to activists like Oliver, it says Durkan should “reexamine all budget choices to prioritize non-law enforcement investments in the community” and should ask City Attorney Pete Holmes to decline to press charges against people arrested “for activities related to peaceful protest.”
SPOG president Mike Solan declined to comment Thursday.
In a statement Thursday, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW executive vice president Jane Hopkins, a registered nurse, noted COVID-19 is killing Black people, indigenous people and other people of color at higher rates than white people.
“As a Black woman leader in the labor movement and in the health care field, I have fought to apply a racial justice lens to every aspect of the work I lead,” Hopkins said.
“We must do the tough but necessary work of calling in our siblings in law enforcement to partner with us to address systemic racism and how it shows up through policing.”
Thursday’s resolution was proposed by 1199NW and by UFCW 21, which represents supermarket workers and which joined the Labor Council in February.
UFCW 21, which has leaned further left than some other unions, endorsing Durkan opponent Cary Moon in 2017, hadn’t been associated with the group “in the last decade,” said secretary treasurer Joe Mizrahi said. UFCW 21 joined the Labor Council to add the voices of “our membership, which is made up largely of people who are at these protests,” he said.
Mizrahi said the Labor Council’s move was driven by the petition signed by hundreds of BIPOC rank-and-file workers.
Seattle Times staff reporters Evan Bush and David Gutman contributed to this story.