On May 22, 2017, the Seattle City Council passed “police accountability” legislation. Below are my comments explaining what in the legislation is positive, and how it falls far short of what is needed to provide real police accountability in Seattle.
I would like to thank the Community Police Commission for their dedication to police accountability, and the dozens, if not hundreds, of hours you have put into amending this legislation.
When the Mayor’s Office first sent the draft legislation to Council, I heard the Commissioners and community advocates express concern that if it was passed without amendment, it would have been a step backward, not forward, and a net loss of accountability. Since then, however, the Community Police Commission has worked and organized to amend many of those original problems. It is due to their determination that we have this legislation today. It’s a step in a good direction. I also thank Councilmember González for listening to the concerns of the Commission. I intend to vote Yes on this bill.
As community activists and organizations like the NAACP welcome this progress, they are correctly urging the Council to follow through on the words in this legislation. They are also correctly urging that this legislation be viewed in proportionate light, with a sense of gravity, and to avoid setting up false expectations.
For example, the position of the Inspector General is described as independent, but independent from whom? According to this bill, the Inspector General is independent from the Seattle Police chain of command, yes, but is not independent from the power structure of the Seattle political establishment.
If we have some future mayor running for re-election who does not want a police scandal on their record, the question is: How independent will the Inspector General be in that situation?
The reality is, in a society with massive wealth and racial inequality, such as the current one, institutions are not independent or neutral, regardless of the establishment’s claims otherwise. Everyone has a social base, different classes and different political forces, that they depend upon or are allied with. I do not try to hide the fact that I represent regular working class people and those at the receiving end of police violence. I do not pretend to represent Big Business.
I have always advocated that for genuine police accountability it will not be enough to have someone who claims to be independent. We will need democratically elected and accountable community oversight that is unapologetically on the side of working people and oppressed communities, and which will doggedly fight for the rights of victims — because they are elected by and accountable to communities, not appointed by the political establishment.
We need to have a separate, democratically elected civilian review board, a body that has full powers to hold the police accountable, and that can itself be held accountable if it fails to defend our community members impacted by discrimination and excessive force.
This legislation takes a step towards that goal, but in truth, a small step. The closest that we have in this legislation to an independent review board is the Community Police Commission, which, while not elected, is currently made up of people with genuine community roots. However, the Commission has no direct power beyond the ability to speak out. It has no structure of authority over police rules, policies, or power to subpoena officers.
I do, however, greatly applaud the current Community Police Commission for retaining and strengthening their ability to call out the political establishment if it fails to produce genuine accountability, and I pledge my full support to you all in using that power to its full potential.
The legislation by itself will not end the excessive use of force and racial profiling by Seattle Police. It will not stop the police from targeting regular people who use their cell phones to record police violence, street medics, independent legal observers, journalists, and activists like myself at peaceful protests. It will not stop the political establishment from sheltering officers who violate people’s basic rights.
We live in a country with over 2 million people in prison, disproportionately people of color. No other country, including brutal dictatorships, have so many imprisoned.
It is not an accident that many black and brown people, and poor and working class people, view police officers as an occupying army, rather than an institution that serves the community.
Here in Seattle, Donald Trump received only 8% of the vote, but was endorsed by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild. Imagine how terrifying it must be for our immigrant, refugee, Latino, and black sisters and brothers to know that many of our City police are among that 8% — the same police who have the authority to use violence against people of color and all working class people.
On February 5, 2017, Seattle/King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson published an editorial in The Seattle Times that asked several important questions about the fatal shooting of Che Taylor at the hands of Seattle Police. He asked:
- Why after Che Taylor was shot multiple times at point-blank range, was he left bleeding on the ground for 7 ½ minutes without any officer providing medical attention?
- Why did Seattle Police release to the media information of his past criminal record immediately after they shot him? Does the leadership of Seattle Police believe past criminal records authorize the use of deadly force?
- Why did the Mayor and the Police Chief tell the media that they thought officers acted appropriately in the days following the shooting before any investigation had been done?
So far, no real answers have been forthcoming from elected officials.
Che Taylor, and the countless others impacted by police violence, are a grim, but important reminder that we need to continue building mass movements for racial justice. The Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle and nationwide, the No New Youth Jail movement of Seattle and King County, and the successful Block the Bunker movement have shown that when activists get organized, we can make a real impact.
Congratulations to the Community Police Commission for their hard work. Thanks to Central Staff and City Attorney staff members, and, above all, to community activists. And, yes, Stop the Sweeps, and No New Youth Jail!