The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has been caught repeatedly on video tape using excessive force and racial profiling in recent years, as you can see from the three videos below. After numerous incidents like these provoked a public backlash, the U.S. Department of Justice was forced to step in and conduct an investigation, ultimately recommending a number of reforms (albeit limited reforms). The political leaders were also forced to change the police chief on June 23, 2014. In this speech, Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant explains her thoughts on confirming Kathleen O’Toole as Seattle’s new police chief.
My comments will not be brief, because I want to express the opinions of the working people of this city.
I appreciate all the work that has gone into this police chief search. I appreciate Councilmembers Harrell and Burgess, all the members of the Committee, all the members of the Community Police Commission, and all of the Mayor’s staff who I know have put in tremendous work.
The problems with the Seattle Police are deep and systematic. The department is clearly in a major crisis. And the communities and neighborhoods in Seattle are plagued with escalating crime, ineffective policing, along with racially-biased actions by the SPD and inappropriate use of force with homeless and mentally challenged people.
There have been increases in recent times in gang violence and shootings. A Somali youth lost his life. These communities are grieving and holding vigils. The people of Seattle deserve a real shift towards safe and crime-free neighborhoods.
The African immigrant community’s experience has been that the Police do not respond to invitations to engage with the community. Their experience has also been a slowness in response to 911 calls, negligence, few officers on the beat, and negative racial biases.
Women have said they feel less safe than before, and are experiencing sexually-based verbal harassment more frequently.
I also thought it would be timely to quote some excerpts from the Department of Justice (DOJ) Report. They write, and I quote:
- [We] find that, when SPD officers use batons, 57% of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive.
- SPD officers escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses, [especially] … with persons with mental illnesses … SPD’s own estimates show that 70% of use-of-force encounters involve these populations.
- The chain of command does not properly investigate, analyze, or demand accountability from its subordinate officers for their uses of force … [and] we found no case in which a first-line supervisor was held accountable.
- Of the cases that we determined to be unnecessary or excessive uses of force, over 50% involved minorities.
I have solicited input from community members, people of color, and the ACLU. I have shared those questions and concerns with Ms. O’Toole.
They included questions on the link between inequality, gentrification, school dropout rates, and gang violence. I asked her how she would bring to book those high-ranking officers who have either condoned or overseen the excessive use of force and the racial bias over the many previous years. I asked her about the use of force, specifically batons and pepper spray on peaceful protesters and on journalists. I really appreciate Ms. O’Toole’s openness to respond to such questions.
She has expressed a commitment to really build a relationship with the community. She calls for a tiered approach for policing protests, in which riot gear police are used strategically, and only pulled out if they are absolutely necessary. Unauthorized protests would be met with bike police first. She has invited the ACLU to work on the SPD’s planning committee, as she did in Boston.
All that would be welcome change – and I am happy to support any such positive moves. Also positive is that a woman will be at the head of what has been and still is a male-dominated bastion.
However, I have not seen sufficient evidence that she would be willing to challenge the status quo of the police and the political establishment. The DOJ investigation clearly shows that a thorough-going fundamental, structural change is necessary to rectify the deeply problematic state of affairs, a state that has been decades in the making.
Ms. O’Toole has said that she would like to run SPD like a business. By that she means she wants SPD to be efficient and accountable. While I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, that is troubling to me, since private businesses and corporations are NOT accountable to working people, they are accountable to the profits of a few. Private businesses keep their affairs closed and secret. The opposite is needed for a public service, for policing in alliance with the communities, for accountability, for transparency.
There are many useful, concrete recommendations from the ACLU: such as mandatory shoulder cameras, providing an opportunity to allow subjects to comply with a verbal warning prior to the use of chemical spray, and breaking the “code of silence” by making it a crime for a police officer to fail to report criminal wrongdoing by another officer, and protecting the reporting officers from retaliation.
All this points to a more fundamental problem: It is a problem of a culture of impunity, of wrongdoing, of excessive force, of an alienation from the community being served. Working people deserve to be protected from crime, we deserve safe neighborhoods. But as long as the police act like an occupying force, lacking the trust, the control, and the roots in the communities, they will not deliver.
What Seattle and other cities need is consent-based policing, where the police are genuinely accountable to the people. This means a fundamental change of democratization of the police, holding it accountable on all levels to the communities, including community and trade union organizations, in the oversight, holding officers directly accountable, and establishing democratic control in a meaningful way in the interest of working and poor people. It would also mean addressing the fundamental inequality and divergence in social power in our society. I can tell you as an economist, inequality is the greatest predictor of crime.
The change we need will not happen with superficial alterations to the appearance of the SPD or by papering over the deep-rooted problems. It needs to be fundamental, and it has to come not just from the SPD itself. The SPD does not exist in a political or social vacuum. The extent of SPD’s brazenness is primarily a function of how much the political establishment is willing to hold them accountable. The police are after all carrying out the instructions they are handed down.
When officers encircle a nonviolent civil disobedience protest march with riot gear, they are following orders. The SPD leadership and the political establishment are at best condoning and overlooking, and at worst requiring that the police carry riot gear. If the political establishment – the Mayor and the Council – were to publicly denounce excessive force and actively work to put in place ACLU recommendations and others, this would immediately send a strong message of a shifting culture.
But this is unlikely to happen with establishment politicians. The Occupy movement noted that in most larger cities where the peaceful encampments and protests were met with by undue force from the police, including pepper spraying and batons, the Democratic Party controls the city’s politics. In not one of those cities did the Democratic establishment stand against the police actions and on the side of the peaceful protestors.
I think that if Ms. O’Toole is indeed sincere and serious about overhauling the department, and carrying out even the steps she herself has outlined, she will run into bitter opposition and obstacles from the entrenched forces in the SPD and the political establishment. This is not a comment on her, because this is not something that can be accomplished by one person. We know we have a Community Police Commission, but it is neither elected nor has any binding authority over the SPD. What we need is a democratically elected civilian review board, with real powers over the SPD to hold them really accountable. If Ms. O’Toole is willing to take steps towards that, I will be happy to do everything in my power to help her.
On top of the fundamental overhaul of the SPD, we also need funding for public education, after-school programs, community youth services, and special services at schools for children from immigrant and people of color communities. The best antidote to gang violence is living-wage jobs, publicly sponsored apprenticeship programs, and language services.
We need to seriously address income and racial inequality. Your zip code determines your fate in many ways. We need to tax the wealthy to fund education and jobs.
In closing, I fear that we will just come back to the same old problems with a police force out of control if the Council just elects a new face and believes that it has done its job. I’m sure the communities, especially communities of color, women’s organizations, and labor – all of us – do encourage any step forward, but will have a close and critical watch on the changes that will follow this day of just changes at the top. For all of the above reasons, I will be voting no.
Here are three recent videos showing the SPD using excessive force and racial profiling.
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In 2010 SPD Officer Ian Birk fatally shot First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams. Officer Birk was later forced to resign but escaped prosecution by city and county prosecutors.
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In 2010 SPD Officer Ian Birk fatally shot First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams. Officer Birk was later forced to resign but escaped prosecution by the city and county. After the signing of a consent decree between the Department of Justice and the SPD, allegedly mandating SPD reforms, an SPD officer showed nothing had changed after he brutally punched an African American man, Leo Etherly, in October last year, as two other officers stood by and watched while a dash-cam recorded video.
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Seattle Police Officer stomps Hispanic man’s head while spewing racial slurs. The DoJ report noted that “the use of this racial epithet failed to provoke any of the surrounding officers to react, suggesting a department culture that tolerates this kind of abuse.”