With Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin, the latest victim of a Black man being shot by white police officers, little doubt remains that something is terribly wrong in some police departments throughout the country.
It isn’t just a few bad apples — and it has given renewed life to the Black Lives Matter movement. Unfortunately, South King County is part of a still-unfolding story.
Mayors, council members, police chiefs and police officers will all play a role in writing the outcome of how each community responds to our race relations challenges. The jury is our citizens, and they are divided. No suburban city is going to defund its police department, but to be successful, each city must come up with a plan for policing that keeps all residents equally safe.
National attention caused by the deaths of Black people at the hands of white police officers has forced a painful look in the mirror at what we expect from police officers and how we treat people of color, who are rightfully tired of getting shot. How will City Hall leaders respond to their quest for equality and safety?
For every George Floyd there is also a Jesse Sarey in Auburn. For every Rayshard Brooks, there is a Malik Williams in Federal Way. And for every Eric Garner there is a Giovonn Joseph-McDade in Kent. With the lack of an agreed upon plan, the Seattle City Council is showing us what over-reaction looks like. The Seattle Police Department lost a good chief in Carmen Best, and the decision by the council has further divided their community.
Suburban protests have been reasonable and measured while elected leadership has been overly cautious. But time is a precious commodity and it may be slipping away. Professional sports stars have weighed in by taking time off after Wisconsin with the sad commentary “enough is enough.”
In Auburn, there was a crowd of about 80 at a rally in early August at the Justice Center. They were supporting the family of Jesse Sarey, who had been shot by Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson on May 31, 2019. They wanted the officer arrested and charged with murder. They wanted all officers to have body cameras and the police department’s budget cut in half, along with urging Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way to drop their lawsuit against King County over changes King County Executive Dow Constantine favored to the inquest record that could be used against a police officer.
It may have spawned a new group in Kent called ForFortyTwo, which refers to the number of schools in Kent. They want police resource officers taken out of schools, the department budget cut in half with money invested in students and youth of color programs, and also want cities to drop their opposition to inquest changes. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph had been considering a ballot measure to raise property taxes to hire up to 30 more police officers. That could have sent the wrong message at the wrong time. However, now Ralph is having Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla present an equity and social justice plan in September that is more likely to gain community support. When cities add police officers, people of color feel like they are the target.
In 2018, voters passed I-940, which changes the standard the prosecutor must meet from “evil intent” or “malice” to proof that a reasonable officer in the same set of circumstances would use deadly force. Other requirements include de-escalation and mental health training. The new law had the effect the voters anticipated when King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced his office was charging Auburn Police Officer Nelson with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the killing of Sarey.
Since Nelson had killed two other people and had 65 use of force incidents in his file, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus was under pressure over the police department. Backus had hired a new chief a few months ago and may have been on top of the issues in the department more than previously known. We recently learned from media sources that she had reached a severance deal with the former chief, and the city had settled a lawsuit with the family of Isaiah Obet, who had also been shot and killed by Nelson. Then when the county prosecutor charged Nelson with murder and assault, Backus’s credibility to arbitrate support among community minorities and police was increased. However, the current plan to form an advisory committee and establish a “talk to a cop” program is going to need more substance.
In Federal Way, Mayor Jim Ferrell met with over 100 people of color in a virtual community meeting. Many have serious concerns about police behavior — and the recent shooting of Malik Williams, a Black paraplegic, served as an example. But it was a rocky session, as many were upset with Ferrell for taking over the meeting and scheduling speakers, such as the police chief and the municipal court judge who appeared to lecture the crowd. Attendees had hoped to be able to ask questions and get answers, or at least tell their story. They remain hopeful that progress can be found in future meetings, but Ferrell has already turned down their request to fly the Black Lives Matter flag, and he recently got the Federal Way City Council to approve hiring more police, through a grant, even though crime is down. Ferrell is opposed to funding body cameras, unless the Legislature pays for them.
Ferrell had his own “use of force” case recently and paid out over $600,000 in a lawsuit the city lost to Josiah Hunter’s family after he survived a vascular neck hold and sued the city. The city lost the case and appealed the verdict, then lost again. Despite several issues in the officer’s file and a trial record suggesting racism might have occurred, the city defended both the officer and the hold for the past six years. And because Ferrell is a former county prosecutor, and is known to be close politically to the police guild, his openness to changes in the department is in question, and he has an uphill climb in order to gain the trust of many people of color in Federal Way.
Recently, the court ruled in favor of South King County cities in their dispute with Executive Constantine on the rules for inquests. However, because the mayor’s position was seen by most people of color as supportive of the status quo in the police department, winning the lawsuit may undermine each mayor’s credibility in trying to objectively be open to constructive suggestions on how to improve the police departments’ relationship with people of color. Constantine actually has the political high ground in the debate and the mayors need to demonstrate they are not fronting for the police guild. Agreement between the cities and the executive on standards would make the next steps easier.
Minority leaders in each city have worked at being constructive, but how long will their patience last? And next year is an election year for cities.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.