When George Smith Jr. was growing up in Seattle’s South End, he said he consistently faced negative interactions with local law enforcement — resulting in a deep, anti-police mentality that pushed him to tend to distrust cops throughout most of his life.
On Thursday evening, Smith attended a small, open discussion in Powell Barnett Park — one organized by the Seattle Police Department’s African American Advisory Council — that invited officers and community members to talk about ways to smooth out the relationship between police and the public. Only a few neighborhood people turned out for the event; they were outnumbered by Police Department personnel.
Once it was over, Smith said he had started to change his mind about the Police Department.
“I was totally for defunding the police … but now that I hear all these stories, I don’t think that’s the good thing to do,” said Smith, 44, adding he hadn’t known about the Police Department’s role in several of Seattle’s community and school programs.
“My perception was that they were just sitting in their cars waiting to catch a bad kid or something,” Smith said. “I just didn’t know about all the things they did within the schools. That’s something we do not need to defund.”
Victoria Beach, a Seattle resident who chairs the Police Department’s African American Advisory Council, said her goal in organizing the event was to introduce officers to community members in a less stressful environment.
The Police Department’s African American Advisory Council, which has been in place for years, meets every month to listen to community members voice their issues with the department or the city, Beach said.
“We’re not getting anywhere with the City Council and the mayor, so I just thought this would be healing,” she said before the event. “It’s most importantly for people to know (police) as human beings and not officers. They’re just as upset as they are about the murder of George Floyd.”
Much of the conversation ended up circling back to the recent push to defund the Police Department by 50%, a move the majority of City Council members have said they support. Beach said she disagrees with the demand, and was disappointed with city leaders for “bandwagoning” on to the movement.
“I get their pain, I get their rage. I get it. And I don’t want to take that from them,” Beach said. “I feel the same way. But I feel like we need to take a deep breath and come to the table calmly so we can work it out.”
A woman named Alexis, who asked to only give her first name, said she agrees the city needs more social services, but added she’s not sure slashing the police budget is the correct step.
“I’ve been wanting to hear from SPD for a while. I was grateful that they hosted this,” she said. “I think I gained perspective, a chance to actually talk to the police … When you see them on the (police) line, it’s just a bunch of interchangeable people in basically giant padded marshmallow suits. They don’t seem like people.”
Assistant Chief Eric Greening also attended the discussion to explain what cutting the budget by 50% could mean for many youth programs and recent hires. One officer told the group that anyone with 13 years of experience or fewer could be at risk of losing their job. What areas and programs would potentially be cut has not been decided by the City Council or the Police Department.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said this week she wants to remove $76 million from the Police Department’s budget in 2021, mostly by transferring the city’s 911 call and dispatch center, parking enforcement officers, Office of Police Accountability and Office of Emergency Management outside the department.
Several officers said Thursday they initially pursued police work to enact change within their communities.
“Personally I never really thought about how they felt. I really didn’t,” Smith said after the event. “I’ve always just been on the other side, totally anti-police … We have a long way to go but if we can start by having these type of meetings and getting people together, I think things will start going in a better direction.”