Why I support police reform but voted against pre-paying for body cameras

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Street Racers at the Des Moines Creek Business Park, December 2020
Street Racers at the Des Moines Creek Business Park, December 2020

As I’ve written and testified, I am a strong advocate of police reform. I was the lone vote against the motion so I figured I should explain a bit. And I want to stipulate that body cameras will likely be in all Cities (including Des Moines) at some point.

Point by point

Let’s begin by pointing out that going into the meeting there was no vote planned. So let me acknowledge the City Manager for asking for a motion rather than simply giving the presentation and then acting unilaterally. Here is a link to the presentation.

Crime is increasing

As hinted at on page 5, crime has been on the increase in the two years before COVID-19 and is expected to continue increasing. We’ve heard in the media about a downward trend in crime over the past decades, but in many categories here in Des Moines that is simply no longer true.

Misdirection

Lest we forget, the whole discussion re. body cameras first came up as a response to calls to address systemic racism in policing, specifically the killing of George Floyd. ‘Racism’ and ‘accountability’ were the defining terms in the whole discussion. And yet at last night’s presentation neither the words racism or accountability were mentioned.  It feels to me like the whole discussion has shifted towards being a symbolic gesture–something we cannot afford right now.

During the presentation, we learned that there have been almost no complaints about Des Moines Police Officers in recent years. So I struggle to understand the urgency of this project.

Not the best use of funds

The police are beginning a beta-test with only two units. Yet back in July the City Manager set aside $140,000 (the cost of the entire system). In a time of serious budget shortfalls, we are essentially pre-paying for something we may not use at all until the end of 2021. That $140,000 could instead be used to fund another officer and a part time civilian position. Right now. That is no symbolic gesture. Hiring new officers would provide an immediate benefit to our community in terms of crime prevention and reduction.

Many bugs yet to work out

The presentation (and prior Public Safety Committee presentation) specifically mentioned that there are still significant challenges to implementing body cameras, both technical and legal (including privacy and little details like when officers get to turn them on and off!) I believe that we should let other communities work out these bugs before we invest heavily. Again, not while there is no local data supporting an immediate need.

The Police did not request this

And then there is something you would have to have attended prior Public Safety and Police Advisory Meetings to learn: the Police Guild (the officers) have not asked for body cameras. The police union representatives have taken great pains to word their reaction like this, “We do not oppose body cameras.” That’s it. They do not say, we need body cameras to do our job. The Chief has also made it clear that this is not about improving law enforcement or addressing documented concerns about accountability or racism.

Summary

I support a beta-test of two cameras. But I do not support funding the entire program in advance, using money that could and should be used now to fight and prevent increased crime. I believe that is what the overwhelming majority of  you, the voters really want. Especially when there is no true evidence of need and no actual desire coming from the PD itself.

When there is a generally accepted best-practice in place for Cities like Des Moines, I will support it, along with other, the far more impactful means of combatting racism and improving accountability that I have previously written about.

How I got so interested in Code Enforcement

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In 2010 I moved away for a year and rented out my house here. Now back then, in order to rent out yer house, the City required aspiring landlords to do a couple of things: first you paid a $40(?) fee and second you became part of a database with your current address and phone number so that your neighbors could track you down if your renters were misbehaving and finally you had to take a class run by Community Service Officer Tonya (which was great by the way.) The class taught all kinds of neat-o stuff like how not to discriminate, your relationship with renters, etc. Sweet.

In 2011, I moved back and shortly thereafter I found that several of my neighbors had flipped their houses (as was so popular back then.) And the new owners were using their homes as rental properties. Unfortunately, the renters who had moved into these houses just suuuuucked. I mean suuuuucked. So I went to the City, because I knew from my ‘landlord class’ that we had a Code Enforcement Officer. And she told me that since my time as a landlord the City had rescinded the above landlord code. No fee, no database, no school. Which meant no accountability.

What I learned first hand is that when landlords cannot be easily held accountable for their renters, chaos tends to ensue. The City’s Code at the time made it almost impossible for people like me to locate the landlords of these bad renters (because, let’s be honest: a lot of these landlords did not particularly want to be found.)

And I did call the City. And SKFR. Many times. They were on a first-name basis with all the ne’er do-wells. They were sympathetic to me, but told me plainly that there was nothing they could do ‘until a crime is committed.’ The City Code was not designed to deal pro-actively with these kinds of situations.

So after many months of frustration I walked up the hill to City Hall on a Thursday night at 7pm and made my first public comment. And the Council just stared at me. (Just like they stare at you.) Which totally pissed me off. So I kept coming back. And kept getting stared at. But in the meantime, I found that the City had been threatened with a lawsuit from the Rental Housing Association–a group I had joined in order to be a ‘good landlord’. They objected to any form of ‘regulation’ on landlords and rather than litigate the City caved. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the whole thing seemed started to sour me on the Des Moines government. My issue seemed like exactly the sort of basic ‘blocking and tackling’ that City government should handle: keeping your street safe, clean and quiet.

Plus, since we were in the dark times of Des Moines financial problems, the Code Enforcement program was gutted–which I thought was just a terrible policy choice. It sent a very clear message about values.

The net effect of this on me personally and my street was this: Three of my long-time neighbors moved away–specifically because of these jerk renters. One of the rental homes was burned down to the studs by the renter. And another home was completely trashed by a meth-head who would store 10-20 thousand pounds of stolen wire (stealing copper was his day job) in the back yard. All it to0k was two crappy renters (or should I say, crappy landlords) to devastate my street. A street with half a dozen school-age kids.

To his credit, a few years later, at the end of his mayoralty, I got a nice letter  Dave Kaplan, informing me that the City had taken my complaints to heart and was revamping its Code Enforcement program. As you can imagine, I was initially very skeptical.

I’ve got a nose for it…

Fast forward to 2020. I am pleased to report that the situation is much better. Because of my bad experience, I had developed something of a ‘bad property radar’. I can spot troubled properties from far away. And during my campaign, I walked every single block of Des Moines. And I heard hundreds of complaints about ‘that one house’ that makes the entire block nervous. And. I. get. it.

Animal Control Officer and Code Enforcement Update

The thing that is not on the presentation Officer Batterman gave was a very good comment from Chief Thomas: Code Enforcement pays. If done properly, it should basically pay for itself. You can see that it’s at least $100k a year in City revenue when done well. That’s not a bad thing like some speed trap. It’s a good way to measure effectiveness simply because there’s a lot of work left to do in Des Moines.

Now, am I 100% happy? Of course not. 😀 But I gotta be fair. It’s much better than it was. And I want you to know that, on a street by street level this is my number one issue. I moved here because Des Moines had a great reputation for its neighborhoods. Gardens were well tended. People understood that the way their house and street looked mattered.

If you have a Code Enforcement issue, please go to the City Code Enforcement Complaint page or call Officer Kory Batterman directly at (206) 870-7617.

Weekly Update: 10/11/2020

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PSA#1: We’re getting down to the wire! You really gotta sign up for the Census. DM is currently only at about 71% participation (Washington State is actually second best in the nation) BUT STILL NOT ENOUGH! 😀 We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

PSA#2: You may have heard that there is an election coming. There will be a Candidate’s Forum October 14th. Write me if you need a Voter’s Pamphlet: I have extras! And if you don’t get your ballot?  please email elections@kingcounty.gov or give them a call at 206-296-VOTE (8683).

This Week

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Aviation Budget Meeting. I hope to hear that, after all the COVID-19 delays, the Commission will finally start funding Port Packages again as they promised last February.

Wednesday: have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Des Moines Marina Association meeting.

Last Week

Tuesday: I was not allowed to watch the Police Department Advisory Board, hosted by Chief Of Police Ken Thomas. Which was disappointing.

Wednesday: Lunch with me at the Senior Center. We draw Seniors from all of South King County so I always learn something.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation Board. I keep bringing up the PSRC because they are the most important agency you’ve never heard of. They decide little details like, oh… if say, a Third Runway gets built. 😀 They create a variety of broad regional planning goals like transportation, housing and economic development. They do this partly by being the funnel through which Federal funding passes. In other words, when the Federal government sends dollars to build roads or housing or businesses, they tend to get distributed through the PSRC. Unfortunately, the PSRC is organized in a fashion that allows larger cities and the Port to steamroll the interests of smaller cities. So the City Of Des Moines needs to be a lot more engaged here.

Thursday: Transportation Committee Meeting. If you haven’t been following, the City funds most of its street repairs from that $40 ‘car tab’ (ie. the Transportation Benefit District or ‘TBD’) which you voted to rescind last year (I-976). That issue is being argued in the courts now (because, hey, no law just goes into effect anymore, right? Everything gets appealed in the courts.) But until that’s resolved here’s two things you can count on: First, you’re gonna continue to pay into the fee–even though the City is not allowed to use that money. Second, the City’s entire road repair program is pretty much on hold. And if I-976 is upheld, we’ll need to take about $1 million from something else if we want our pot holes filled.

Transportation Benefit District TBD Page

Pavement Management program

Des Moines 2016 Pavement Analysis Report

Thursday: City Council General Meeting (Agenda, Video). See below.

City Council Meeting Recap

Official City Recap

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. If that isn’t the best opening line in a book ehvehhhhhr? On the one hand, last Thursday’s meeting was one of the least controversial I’ve attended; and at 43 minutes, it was definitely the shortest. Heck, I even had time to grab a snack and watch Judy Woodruff. 😀 There’s a downside to all that which made it perfect time to publish the third in my series Better City Council Meetings.

Consent Agenda

Street Sweepers: I asked to pull the item for renewing the Street Sweeper contract because I’ve heard from many neighbours over the years that it’s a bit crazy-making never knowing when they’ll show up. DPW Director Brandon Carver promised to ask the vendor if they could do that.

Comcast Renewal: This is one of those things that I voted for simply because I’m new and no one would care. But we just signed a ten year contract with an organization that is unbelievably disliked. I don’t know what we could do better, but I feel like we should try.

City Manager report on Airport stuff

The City Manager made two comments of note regarding the airport.

Letter to the PSRC

First, that he and the Mayor had written a letter to the Puget Sound Regional Council objecting to various aspects of their Regional Aviation Baseline Study.

OK, this is tricky, so please stick with me. The letter is fine, so far as it goes. However, it’s one of those ‘appearance of engagement’ deals. you will hear me go on about aaaaaaaaaaaall the time.

The appearance of engagement is when you do something that, to the uninformed public, looks like you’re showing concern, when in fact, it has almost no tangible effect whatsoever. The Port Of Seattle are the masters of this.

And letters like this can also be seen in that light because it creates the impression that the City is fighting the best possible fight. But that is far from the case. This is not to sound cynical–it’s important to raise the alarm that the PSRC’s (cough) ‘study’. That document is also a massive ‘appearance of engagement’. It tries so hard to sound concerned about the negative impacts of aviation, but in fact the PSRC study is totally biased against community interest.

So I appreciate the Mayor and City Manager doing this. However, we are literally years behind where we should be in dealing with the Sustained Airport Master Plan (SAMP). It’s important to recognize that the Port announced its plans to expand in 2012 and we’ve done very little of consequence to this point. So unless we change course strategically starting about yesterday, the expansion of Sea-Tac Airport is pretty much assured. In short, we shoulda been doing a lot more than writing letters  and that’s the main reason I ran for office.

Tina Orwall’s HEPA filter STUDY

On an unambiguously positive note, the City Of Des Moines (along with our sister-cities) have kicked in money recently for State Representative Tina Orwall‘s project to test schools to see about the efficacy of HEPA filters. As I’ve written before, proper air quality is not some new-agey deal. It has very real and immediate effects for school children and I am so glad we are backing this.

The next obvious step, which I hope the City will get behind in its 2021 Legislative Agenda, is for the State to install a comprehensive air quality monitoring system for the communities around Sea-Tac Airport. I feel like I need to mention this over and over but there is literally no air quality monitoring system anywhere near the airport. Various agencies will do a study of one particular toxin (like ultrafine particulates) every decade or so but that’s about it. This is ridiculous.

The 2021 Budget Presentation

2021 Preliminary Annual Budget

This was a new one. We had first Budget Presentation of 2021. There was just one detail missing. The Budget. Literally. The actual document showed up in my Inbox ten minutes after the meeting ended. So there was nothing to discuss–except how much we were encouraged to ask questions. OK, my first question is this: Why couldn’t you send us the PDF before the meeting? 😀

I guess this is a good time to say that the third in my series Better City Council Meetings is now on-line? 😀 I hope you’ll read it.

Five new police cars

We’re getting five new police cars. One immediately and four next year. And they need to be paid for now ahead of the Budget, in order to get them in a timely fashion. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because if you read my Better City Council Meetings #3, this is very similar to my problem with having a Budget Presentation without an actual Budget. Given the urgency and given the fact that this is being approved outside the normal budget process, look at the agenda and tell me what question is not on there:

Why do we need five new police cars?

There was nothing in the Agenda Packet that told me why I should vote to spend $350,000 on new vehicles–outside of the budget process.

Let me be clear: I have no problem paying for new vehicles if that’s what is needed. But in the hundreds of public meetings I’ve attended over the years, I have never been to any outside of Des Moines where a packet does not provide at least some justification for making an expenditure. If you run or work at a business, can you imagine a scenario where you made a written request for $350,000 without providing a reason?

Wait… remind me. Did I mention that the third in my series Better City Council Meetings is now on-line? 😀

Weekly Update: 10/04/2020

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Public Safety, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesTags , , 1 Comment on Weekly Update: 10/04/2020

PSA: We’re getting down to the wire! You really gotta sign up for the Census. We’re getting down to the wire and DM is currently only at about 71% participation (Washington State is actually second best in the nation) BUT STILL NOT ENOUGH! 😀 We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

This Week

Tuesday: Police Department Advisory Board, hosted by Chief Of Police Ken Thomas.

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Puget Sound Regional Council Economic Development Committee.

Thursday: Transportation Meeting 3:00pm (Agenda) Please go here  if you wish to attend.

Thursday: City Council General Meeting (Agenda) Please go here  if you wish to attend.

Last Week

Thursday: Public Safety Committee meeting. The big discussion this time was about body cameras. Our City Manager has already added $140k for this to the 2021 budget so I guess that’s a done deal?

What’s Your Position On?

I do get questions from residents.

Body cameras

The interesting thing about that last Public Safety Committee Meeting was that there was 100% agreement, but almost no data. The position of the Police Guild is that, while they are not opposed to the idea in principle, they think that the money could be spent better elsewhere. And I agree. The Chief has said repeatedly that we get very few officer complaints, however offered no supporting data. And I think that was a mistake. Basic data regarding complaints should be constantly available and certainly when making a presentation on this issue. But, taking him at his word, I say again: we’re in the biggest budget shortfall in years, so why spend money now if there’s no problem? One comment from Councilmember Bangs was that “if we don’t spend this money for body cameras it may not be available for other public safety programs. It may just go away.” I would remind her that we the Council control the budget. Well, in theory, anyhoo. 😉

Redondo

To quote our Chief Of Police, “the best solution to crime is an engineered solution.” In other words, you want to organize traffic or buildings or whatever to avoid having to call the cops or have an ordinance. The best law enforcement is where no law enforcement is needed. And I agree.

However, there are some situations, and I’m starting to think Redondo is one of them, where there is nothing like a cop on the beat. This is where I’d like to spend that $140k–where there is a demonstrable problem that can clearly be solved with the presence of an officer. However, the Chief seems to be resistant to this notion. At his last Police Advisory Meeting, he made an interesting comment, “every interaction is a chance for something to go wrong.” Which I hope to ask him about because I think that if you ask most residents they want to see more police in their neighborhoods. I’ve done a bit of research and other law enforcement professionals express this sentiment.  The thing is, in places like Redondo, where there is no obvious ‘engineered’ answer to chronic speeding, loud cars, etc., having an officer on patrol (and writing tickets) may be the best solution.

Midway Sewer District

I’ve reached out to the Sewer District, as usual, mainly to learn how everything works and they seem pretty confident that it’s a one-off. OK, maybe this incident won’t happen again. However we’ve now had at least four water infrastructure problems just this year. My interest is in seeing if there are ways that all the players (Water Districts, Sewer Districts, City) need to be thinking long term.

Taken as a whole, Des Moines has an amazingly complex water system from wells like Water District #54 to the Marina, Redondo, Saltwater State Park, creeks, commercial shell-fishing. There are at least six agencies I can think of off the top of my head that govern various aspects of ‘water’ from your house out to Puget Sound. When people think of ‘complex bureaucracy’ water management is exactly what you’re thinking of.

I know people want something like those air quality ‘dashboards’ with a little water quality indicator color: Green good, Yellow caution, Red bad. Simple. But that is not how it currently works. (Actually, what you really want is to never have to think about ‘water’.) But in addition to all the ‘agencies’ we have an aging system–especially in areas like Lower Woodmont and increasing pressure to reduce pollutants. So my prediction is that we’re going to be talking about ‘water’ a lot more in the coming years.

G.R.O. business grant program

So, due to the nonsense at the last City Council Meeting I never got to ask questions about the program. I just want to reiterate that I am thrilled to support local business grants. In fact, I started pushing for this concept back in April in meetings with people from Rotary, Destination Des Moines, SCCOC and staff from the City Of Des Moines.

However, I have had questions of the process. I talk to lots and lots of businesses and I had several concerns:

1. Lack of awareness. Many businesses were unaware that the City even had a program. In fact, everyone at those initial SCCOC meetings agreed that ‘getting the word out’ would be one of the most challenging parts of any such program. I saw very little public marketing from the City and I wish there had been more.

2. Aside from basic awareness, there was also many psychological hurdles that you can’t really understand unless you’ve had a small business. Many business owners had an absolutely terrible experience with both the Federal and State grant programs earlier in the year. They were either subjected to a very confusing process, or delays or were outright denied.  Any number of business owners I spoke with literally had to be talked into applying for these grants. Again, after the bad experience with the Federal/State programs, a lot of people felt like, “Forget it. I’ll just try and muddle through.”

3. Accessibility. We have any number of business owners who have trouble with language issues or basic computer skills. One can argue that this is on them, but they are hard working and they provide products and services that many of us all benefit from. Without a certain amount of ‘hand holding’ (which their banker provided in the case of Federal programs) they found the process a struggle.

4. The fact that there were 26 applications and 26 acceptances strikes me as, at minimum, unusual. (Eg. how many employers do you know that accept 100% of their applicants?) I found it unnerving that the City did not publish the names or the dollar amounts. All I know is that we gave out $432k without a Council vote. I found it irresponsible that not a single one of my colleagues had any questions or concerns–which just seem like basic due diligence to me.

To deal with these concerns, all our sister cities utilized an independent firm to manage their grant program–as recommended by MRSC. Here is an example from Burien (which is now in round two of their program.) The idea was to have

Now, none of the above takes away from the benefit I’m sure the winners feel or the hard work of our City Staff. Again, no one is more thrilled than me to help local businesses. But ultimately, I work for you. It’s your money and I’m supposed to ask these kinds of questions.

Student Internet Access

I posted on Facebook an article in the Seattle Times about the uncertainty over how many students don’t have access to the Internet. We have a similar issue here. According to Highline Schools, there are close to a 1,000 students in Des Moines who may have poor or no Internet service. Other cities devoted a portion of their CARES Act money to helping them through the pandemic. We did not. The Mayor offered a token gesture to help twenty students which is only a drop in the bucket.

We have to offer a competitive education to every student in order to improve Des Moines. Quality of schools is number one on many people’s lists when choosing a place to live.  So even if you don’t have children in public school it is in your self-interest to help these students.

I want to remind the reader that we received $1.4 million in CARES Act funding. 100% of that money was spent by our City Manager and 0% was voted on by our City Council.

Education is such an important issue that there should have at least been an opportunity for discussion on that CARES funding from the dais. But even if I can’t convince you that education is your priority, I hope we can agree that the Council (as your representative) should’ve had the opportunity to weigh in on how that money was spent. It’s your money.

COVID-19

At our last Transportation Committee meeting I expressed my support for Roundabouts in Des Moines–to which the City Manager quipped, “Amazing, I am in agreement with Councilmember Harris!” To which I replied, “Hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day.” 😀

Although I doubt we’d currently agree as to who is the clock in that metaphor, I wanted to return the favor by applauding his recent policy statement on face coverings.

That letter shows that the City is continuing to be serious about the pandemic and I want to encourage all of you to do the same.

Let’s be honest: with each passing week I see fewer and fewer people using masks, doing the ‘six feet’ thing. It almost seems like the same game we all play at the airport with taking off our shoes.

I know we’re all sick of it and emotionally checked out, but it’s not going away. Not even close. Rates have risen sharply in the past few weeks and I’m begging y’all to take a breath and re-commit to good habits–before the cold weather.

Port Of Seattle Special Meeting On Policing and Racism (Public Comment)

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FROM: JC Harris
PO Box 13094
Des Moines, WA 98198
(206) 878-0578TO: Commissioners Of The Port Of Seattle: Peter Steinbreuck, Fred Felleman, Stephanie Bowman, Ryan Calkins, Sam Cho

June 29, 2020

Commissioners,

I am writing to you in this context as a private citizen. I applaud the Port’s efforts at self-reflection on matters of policing and specifically identifying and ending racism in policing. In light of recent events, I have heard many platitudes from various governments (including my own) and I am hoping to see these fine words translated into productive steps forward.

If my tone seems a bit cynical, perhaps this background information will be helpful. I am in a decidedly ‘mixed’ family. And the black people in my family have had experiences which are unfortunately common enough (and recent enough) that I believe they warrant investigation in today’s Port Of Seattle. As one specific example, my black son and his cousin were stopped by a member of the Port PD in 2002 for a supposedly illegal right turn on red within the City Of Des Moines. They were not only stopped, but handcuffed. And then their car was towed, forcing them to walk back home to Burien—about six miles. (When they asked to get back into their now locked car to retrieve their cell phone to make an emergency call, their request was denied.) When they demanded to know why they were being treated so roughly, the officer explained that their car tabs had expired and this was standard procedure in such cases. (Their car tabs were expired. By one. Single. Day.)

Almost all the conversations I have heard thus far focus on preventing the most extreme cases, such as the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Of course, I welcome any solutions that might be put found to prevent such catastrophes. However, I believe that the vast majority of problems are actually ‘minor’ incidents where the police stop individuals and treat them differently based on their race. These are the incidents we do not hear about. But in some ways they matter more than the headline events, because these incidents scar people and create an ongoing climate of tension, intimidation and fear. I think all of us are getting a sense of what that might feel like now with COVID-19. The risk of infection is low, but it’s always in the back of your mind. And that constant sense of concern wears on people.

I’m also convinced that if we had better data on these more ‘minor’ types of incidents, we might prevent more serious problems by identifying the officers who show day to day biases.

What I am dancing around, and what everyone else tends to dance around so carefully is this: we cannot truthfully say that the problem of police racism is ‘somewhere else’ or ‘back in the day’. It must be acknowledged that, in every department it is, to some extent, here and now. Because we are small communities here in South King County, we are reluctant to think that anyone working here might behave in this way. And the moment that possibility is mentioned, a wall of defensiveness or resentment tends to come up. But to think that the Port’s PD (or any other) might be somehow ‘special’ or ‘immune’ is to ignore how baked in racism is into the culture of policing as well as in the broader culture. And we should be able to discuss it without pearl clutching.

I believe that processes need to be put into place in every police department to not only prevent the types of situations I just mentioned, but just as importantly, to reassure the public that we take the issues seriously on a day to day basis. To build real trust, it is not enough to say that we will not choke someone to death or shoot them in the back. That is far too low a bar. We must also take steps to show the public that when we stop someone for any reason, they will be treated fairly and with courtesy during any type of interaction.

To address this I would ask you to consider the following changes to police management:

  1. The Port’s web site should be updated with a prominently displayed Comment Form that encourages the public to provide feedback on their interactions with the police. Respondents should be followed up with by someone not connected with the police department. We need to tell the public that was want to hear from them and that we care about their comments. I’m sure there will be a certain amount of skepticism that this might help much. But policing seems to me to be, to a very large degree, a customer service job. Most interactions are not about force, they are transactional. And most people who feel mistreated in some way, think that the poor treatment they received must be condoned by management. Most people of colour are extremely reluctant to complain–unless the mistreatment rises to an outrageous level. We need to convey to the public (and particularly people of colour) that any mistreatment is not OK.
  2. Every person who interacts with the police should be given a business card with that web address and a phone number to call to give voice feedback. This should not just be additional fine print on the back of a citation, but rather an attractive business card used only for that purpose. Again, we should reinforce that we are in the customer service business. We want officers to do that well and we want everyone who they meet to know that there is someone in management who wants to know how they are conducting themselves.
  3. Any significant complaint should be immediately reported to the Commissioners or another independent body outside of the corporation. This is simply to allow the Commissioners to have a sense of the frequency and type of complaints coming in.
  4. Summary Reporting (not detailed) of complaints should be made available to the Commissioners on a regular basis. Commissioners should be able to have an idea of the frequency and type of complaints that are being recorded. They should also get totals for each member of the force. And these totals should also include any complaints the employee may have received while working for another police department. (Eg. if an officer worked for another PD before coming to the Port, the Commission should be apprised that their ‘complaint total’ of ‘3’ includes 2 complaints from their previous employment and 1 from working at the Port Of Seattle.
  5. Racial coding of police stops–only for the purposes of complaint tracking. I have read that the efficacy of this sort of tracking is controversial. However I am only interested in the complaints not the stops themselves. We should be able to get a list of complaints that is broken down by race as well as type of incident. Again: this is not to track the incidents; only the ones where a complaint was logged.
  6. Reports of stops should be transmitted to all State and Federal Agencies and to the Standford Open Policing Project, which contains the most thorough database of information on police stops. All police departments should be part of consistent national reporting so we can track improvement.

Part of this process is to insure fair treatment for the people that the police interact with. But part of it is also to demonstrate to the public that the PD takes these issues seriously enough to actually welcome more scrutiny from the outside. Currently, no one outside the government (not even the Commission) learns about complaints unless they rise to a very serious level. That must change.

I recognise that the job of policing is one of the most difficult imaginable. And most people, even in far less stressful jobs, are not inclined to having people ‘look over their shoulder’. But that’s where we’re at in 2020. We will never get to a place of public comfort and trust with our policing until we can prove that our police departments invite comments and criticism; and that complaints are subject to the same kinds of oversight we expect from every business that deals with the public in such an intimate way.

Thank you for your consideration,

JC Harris

Weekly Update: 06/14/2020

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This Week

Monday: Sound Cities Association meeting on helping businesses to re-open.

Tuesday: SCATbd Meeting. The cuts to King County Metro are looking to be pretty massive in the next two years. Unfortunately, I don’t have a Zoom link yet so check their web site if you want to comment. The drag is that this is exactly the moment we should be increasing transit options.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee Meeting (BAC). If you’re concerned about the noise and pollution, I urge you to attend this Zoom meeting. The problem we always have in managing Sea-Tac Airport is reactivity historically we only respond to their growth. The BAC is one of the only places where there is ongoing work to change that.

Wednesday: Come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines. Over the past several years the group has made major improvements in attendance at our schools as well as juvenile crime reduction.

Last Week

Not one, but two web meeting with Southside Seattle Chamber Of Commerce on small business grants in Des Moines. There has been a bunch of talk on how to get more emergency aid to local businesses. There is help on the way. I know it’s taking forever, but a big part of this is that it’s right in the State Constitution that governments are not supposed to give ‘public gifts’ to private businesses (think of the possibilities for corruption.) That’s why grants almost always come with lots of strings attached. How do you do it fairly? Just give xxx dollars to every licensed business regardless of size? Do you make an application process based on ‘need’? How do you define that? The system just ain’t set up to do this quickly.

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle General Meeting. Speaking of grants, after two years, the commissioners finally voted to approve the South King County Fund–a program that was originally proposed to provide money for mitigation programs (noise and pollution). But in this? It was the cities who could not even agree on what they wanted to do. They kept pushing back saying, “We want sidewalks!” or “Parks!”. This is the maddening part of dealing with the impacts from Sea-Tac Airport. Even when the Port tries to do the right thing, the Cities can’t agree. Anyhoo… expect to see more Port grants to cities–but not more relief on noise or pollution.

Wednesday: Come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: City Council General Meeting (see recap below). (Agenda) (Video).

Meeting Recap

For openers, here is the coverage of the meeting in the Waterland Blog. And I have a question for you, Dear Reader. When I read their coverage I always wonder, “Is this the average viewer’s takeaway?” So, I’d be interested to get feedback from you as to what you think of their coverage. I obviously address what I consider most important, but I want to occasionally check in and make sure I’m also talking about what you care about.

The ever-expanding Consent Agenda

I’ve gotten a number of questions recently about how meetings work. There is a lot more confusion than usual because of (once again) that darned Consent Agenda. Remember: a Consent Agenda is a straight up or down vote on items that are supposed to be routine.

Now between all the kerfuffle in January and February in bringing on us noob councilmembers, Vic Pennington resigning and then being replaced by Luisa Bangs and now this pesky Pandemic, we’re five months behind schedule. So what we’re doing is cramming most definitely non-routine items onto the Consent Agenda. (and pretending like they’re routine.) Why? Because under our ‘State Of Emergency’ we’re not allowed to do much ‘new business’. So we re-brand new business as ‘routine’. Got all that? 😀

If it weren’t for COVID-19, we’d see a lot more discussion on many items. But even I, ‘the complainer’ am eager to move things along. You simply have to keep City busines moving. *So I’m actually being a lot more ‘go along’ than I would be if it weren’t a pandemic kind of world.

Sustained Airport Master Plan (SAMP)

The SAMP is one of those things the public isn’t engaged on and at some point I need to do an ‘explainer’ because like I keep saying, the airport is the single external threat to our city’s long term success. But not today. 😀

For now, the deal is that we have this Inter-Local Agreement (ILA) between Des Moines, Burien, SeaTac and Normandy Park to hire a shared team of consultants to help represent us on the possible environmental impacts of the impending expansion of the airport. SeaTac was administering that contract. We simply voted to transfer that bookkeeping function to DM. My motion was tangential. I just snuck in an opportunity to find out from our City Manager (CM) where things stand.

See the thing is: remember that the CM is the executive. So when there is official dialogue between the cities, it’s generally the City Managers doing it. So we’re in this weird parallel universe, where a small number of councilmembers who care about the issue do the day to day research and work with lawmakers. But it’s the City Managers who do the formal negotiating with the FAA or Port. It’s totally cockamamie. But that’s just the deal until the City Councils decide to take this more seriously.

Basically, the dais is the one place where I am guaranteed at least some kind of cooperation from the government. Which sucks for Des Moines. But, again, that’s an explainer for another day. 😀

Valley SWAT (VSWAT)

I tried (unsuccessfully) to delay this vote to formally join VSWAT until the next meeting because the City provided no stats as to the number of incidents or what they were about, cost per incident, or even the difference between ‘joining’ and not joining. There was not even a statement of the effects of not approving the motion (as is typical in most packets.) Yes, the Chief spoke to anecdotes (thank you, that’s helpful). But like I always say, I won’t vote for anything without data.

The funny thing is that this was a golden opportunity to address issues of proper use of force. Presenting some real stats as to the benefits of VSWAT would have allayed some valid concerns from the public. In fact, the very first purpose laid out in the mission statement in the packet was ‘crowd control’. If that ain’t bad timing, I dunno what is. And I think that was worth two weeks sending a message saying, “When you want something? Bring data. Thanks very much.”

I want a culture of data in decision-making. I want reports. You know: those things with numbers on them? That goes for all departments, but especially with policing where the public has concerns. Facts are the best remedy to public skepticism.

My public comment

COVID-19

We really need to mask up. Every State that has re-opened is showing a lot more cases. I try being patient with people who hate wearing masks, but I’m losing patience. We in Des Moines are super-vulnerable due to our senior citizen populations living in such concentration. So it’s my strong feeling that we need to be conservative in our approach and I ask for your help.

George Floyd

As I mentioned above with the VSWAT, we need more information on police activities. Yes, we’re a relatively small city, but we have the ability, right now, to make significant improvements in policing while spending almost nothing. The problem is that the entire conversation has (like all issues, right?) instantly become ‘all or nothing’. If you ask for more data, people immediately get defensive and accuse you of being ‘soft on crime’. It’s about transparency. You don’t have to choose. What’s telling to me in this moment is how many people are willing to talk about everything except: increasing basic accountability.

For example, all the studies show that something as trivial as having a Customer Comment form on the web site works. Just asking the public to submit comments on policing makes a difference.

And publishing complaint data also makes a big difference. Knowing that there were ‘x’ complaints every month (and what type) and having a clear and public policy makes a difference.

Finally, it’s telling that any sort of civilian oversight is not even in the discussion–even thought that has been shown to be the single most effective way to reduce police complaints. Not cameras, not town halls or changes in use of force procedures; just being more transparent. Here is a good article from MIT describing why so many high dollar interventions haven’t worked.

Redondo

Redondo. It was great to see a new resident: Karen Steinhaus and lifetime resident: Rick Johnson, both comment on problems at Redondo. It’s time that the City recognize that the noise and speeding have become chronic and come up with some long-term solutions. Redondo will only continue to grow in importance to the city so we must figure this out. I applaud their efforts to organize residents and help the City figure it out.

*On the other hand: Our meeting still clocked in at a sprinty 1:45, which is much faster than meetings in other cities. So maybe I’m going along a little too much? Who knows. I’m new on the job. 🙂

Weekly Update: 06/07/2020

Posted on Categories Airport, Economic Development, Policy, Public Safety, Weekly UpdatesTags , ,

This Week

Web meeting with Southside Seattle Chamber Of Commerce on small business grants in Des Moines. (See Last Week below).

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle General Meeting. A final vote to proceed with their long-term plan ‘Century Agenda’; a long term blueprint for growth. What I asked them to consider is that they hold off since there is no reasonable way to plan for either air or cruise travel until the dust settles. (The same was true after 9/11–it took Sea-Tac Airport nearly a decade to return to 2001 levels of operations–even with a shiny new third runway.)

Wednesday: Come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: City Council General Meeting (see recap below). (Agenda)

Last Week

Tuesday: Southside Seattle Chamber Of Commerce Web Meeting. Attended by City Of Des Moines Economic Planner Eric Lane, King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove and  Connor Talbott of the Des Moines/Normandy Park Rotary Club. The talk was the nuts and bolts of doing small business grants. There was also a very good discussion on the last mile–getting business owners engaged with translation and form-filling help as needed. Here is an example of how unincorporate King County is doing it.

Tuesday: Attended protest for George Floyd (more below).

Wednesday: Lunch at Senior Center. Got another EATS certificate. Woo hoo!

Wednesday: MRSC meeting on legislative updates and how the upcoming Special Session might affect Des Moines.

Friday: I had a meeting with long-time friend and restaurant management consultant Mat Mandeltort. Mat is something of a polymath: lawyer, MBA and for many years, a professional fine-dining chef. He is a restaurant management consulting in Chicago. He has generously offered to put together a program for restaurants in Des Moines to help them profitably adapt to the new post-COVID-19 reality. If you, or someone you know, runs a restaurant in Des Moines, please contact me. The systems he comes up are most beneficial for restaurants that work together, so the more owners that participate, the more money they will all benefit. Here are a couple of examples showing off the quality of his work:

Datassential Restaurant Analysis for Coronavirus

Black sheep restaurants COVID-19 operating procedures

1500 words about George Floyd

There is just to much to say about this issue to cram in here so I wrote a separate article which contains a very simple proposal which I believe would improve police accountability here in Des Moines.

*Unlike most posts I write, I did not crank this out in an hour. I considered what I wrote quite carefully. Even so, my concern is that, because it’s a long piece, people will not actually read the thing and just cherry pick the items they agree or disagree with.   But as the kids say… what…. ehveeeeehr.

What can Des Moines learn from George Floyd?

*I just did something writing teachers tell you is completely weaselly, but… I did it anyway. Namely trying to shame you into reading something difficult because I’m afraid that otherwise you’ll just skim. Jerk move, right?

What can Des Moines learn from George Floyd?

Posted on Categories Policy, Public SafetyTags

I’m in the not unusual position of being a white guy in a black family. So I’ve been an unwitting participant in a decades long sociology experiment. I’ve gotten to see how I get treated differently from my family members in all sorts of shared situations.

Unfortunately, that also applies to dealings with the police. I have male family members and friends who’ve been stopped for no particularly good reason in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and yes, many years ago, *Des Moines. And I’ve been in the car when that has happened. My takeaway? If you’re a black person (and especially a black  man), sooner or later, you should expect to be stopped.

The complaints you don’t hear about

During my campaign I knocked on a whole bunch of doors and I heard big support for our police department, for which they should be justifiably proud. But I also heard complaints. Most of the complaints are, as you might expect, of the “there’s never a cop around when you need ’em” variety. But some of these complaints match up with my family’s bad experiences; enough to get my attention. And I think it’s easy to ignore those types of concerns because you never hear about them. For obvious reasons, people of color are often reluctant to file a complaint when they’ve been treated disrespectfully unless something truly horrible happens. They just do what my family has done: try to shake it off and move on.

About that statement…

Let me be clear: Chief Thomas’ statement last week was very good and I applaud the sentiments. I also believe that members of the DMPD and the Guild are on board. But my praise is more guarded than I would like and the reason goes to a partial solution I will present in a minute.

Said it before, say it again…

As I’ve written many times here, your City Council is not allowed to have direct contact with any City employee unless given express permission by the City Manager. And that includes the Chief Of Police and the City Attorney. They work for the City Manager, not the Council. All communication goes through the CM.

I rarely have contact with the Chief (or any staff for that matter). And unless it’s presented at a City Council meeting I don’t have access to all the policing data I would like. So I have no better idea than you do  about the department’s performance on issues of race. Based on talking to the Chief a bit over the years, again, I assume they are good. †But I have no way to judge for myself. In fact I have less contact with him (and staff in general) now than before I was elected. I also have no more access to stats than the general public. And if I can’t see data and I can’t observe how people do their jobs? I will always have questions–especially when it comes to issues like this.

Please Note: Apparently the Mayor does routinely speak with the Chief and staff, but that is only because the City Manager allows it; not because the office of Mayor has any more legal authority than any other councilmember.) I keep coming back to this point of ‘mayoral privilege’ because most residents believe that the office of Mayor has some built-in special authority. It doesn’t. We are seven equals under the law. If there’s a difference? It’s only because the City Manager deigns it so.

The Current System

There is a State law (quoted below) which shields all staff (including the police) from ‘Council interference’. The rationale (which I agree with 100%) is to  keep the Council from trying to manage the City–which is solely the job of the CM. You can’t have councilmembers bugging staff day in and day out or attempting to contravene the CM’s authority.

RCW 35A.13.120: Except for the purpose of inquiry, the council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the manager and neither the council nor any committee or member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the city manager, either publicly or privately.

However, all laws are subject to interpretations. And Des Moines has adopted one of the most extreme possible interpretations of that statute. We heavily restrict the ‘inquiry’ mentioned at the beginning of that sentence. In practical terms, this allows the City Manager and the police department to choose the information it provides to councilmembers.  When a resident complains about something (like policing) a councilmember has no way to demand answers. They only get the answer that the CM or other staff choose to give them. And that’s bad for me as a councilmember and bad for you as a resident. In practical terms: when I hear concerns from residents (as I did during my campaign) I cannot dig deeper without first getting the permission of the CM and the Police Chief. That is the first thing that needs to change.

Where am I going with this?

The suggestions I’ve gotten from residents have included some rather dramatic changes: body cameras, creating a civilian review board, etc. Many  cities have spent millions doing such things and still have problems. I believe that we should first try to catch problems a lot further upstream. Because by the time you get to the level of the incident, it’s often too late. In other words, what the George Floyd video tells me is that their entire department has a problem of culture, not a lack of rules or tech.

Proposal #1: Restore the right of inquiry

So my initial suggestion for Des Moines is a bit different. Let’s start by making a very simple, but very significant change to the City Code. Under specific circumstances, each councilmember should have the ability to speak with staff and freely gather information from the government, independent of the executive. 

This ability would allow councilmembers to determine for themselves whether or not the culture is improving and then come together to craft policy as necessary. Frankly, this is a power that the public already thinks councilmembers have: independent inquiry. And in fact, legislators in most other jurisdictions do have this power.

Now this change in no way goes against the statute or infringes on the City Manager’s authority. In fact, inquiry is the first clause of that sentence. But somehow ‘inquiry’ has been dropped from that equation in our city. And the net effect is this: the Council has to take the Chief and the City Manager at their word on any issue or event because the City Manager controls access to all information the Council sees. This a specific and important example of the ‘lack of transparency’ I campaigned on.

Please note: As I write this: The City Manager and Police Chief informed Council that they are discussing a proposal to improve policing. In other words they will propose the solution for Council to approve. In my opinion, that is completely backwards and speaks directly to my concerns.  To me, this discussion should begin with the City Council.

Proposal #2: Make complaining simple

The process for filing a complaint is difficult for a lot of people–probably the people most likely to need to file a complaint. As I mentioned, currently if a resident has a complaint about policing it initiates a process whereby no one outside the Police Department is even aware of the situation until it has been reviewed by the Police. There needs to be a system whereby we actually welcome and encourage honest feedback from the public, good or bad. And we need to reassure the public that if they do file a complaint that someone who is not with the Police will be able to at least see their issue–not to intervene directly, but to be aware.

Proposal #3: Provide Statistics

As I said, we currently provide no statistics on complaints. I don’t mean information on specific officers or classes of problems, I mean anything; not even a grand total for each year. This sort of basic data should be public information. If it is, as I suspect, a super-low number? All the better: we can then show the public how well we’re doing. If it rises because people start taking advantage of a better complaint system, then at least we know what we need to work on and we show the public that we’re sincere in those efforts.

A first step

I know that for some of you, my suggestions will seem a bit underwhelming. And at some point, other levels of oversight may well be necessary. But based on the studies I have read, transparency is always near the root of most problems of policing.

I think the calls for bigger solutions are largely  because people are so frustrated at ‘nibbling around the edges’. They want to see something dramatic happen now. I get that. However my goal is always to do what works best based on the data and, again, the data tells me that improving transparency is key.

So first we should try just having the people you’ve already elected become more engaged in how policing is done. Let the City Council provide an additional level of investigation and oversight already present in statute.

Simply adding seven sets of eyes (who are not part of the government, remember) to monitor what is going on will send a powerful message to residents and police about our commitment to transparency and change. It will enable members of the public to come forward who have heretofore been reluctant to do so and it will allow the Council to identify problems before they migrate to the public.

Both things are true

Like most cities, our public safety constitutes almost half of the Des Moines general budget. That indicates just how important we all value policing. So any change that calls into question that department will create defensiveness, not just with the force, but also in the community. And that also explains why it’s easy to engage in endless platitudes but not take any real action.

I know that a certain portion of readers will react to this post as follows, “You don’t support the police!” That is simply untrue. And if you feel that way, my guess is that you have not experienced the type of incident I have.

Nobody appreciates the talent, hard work and courage our police demonstrate every day more than I do–as well as the tremendous stress that is intrinsic to the job. (If you recall, last month I asked for the City to support a National Holiday for First Responders.) These people are heroes and without their efforts, society isn’t even possible. And every member of my family feels exactly the same.

All of my family want the police department to understand that we simultaneously hold two thoughts in our heads and in our hearts. Some may say these are contradictory, but they are not.

I support you 100%.
It could happen here.

*Just to be clear: in this case, the officer worked for the Port Of Seattle.

†Yes, a Councilmember can do a one-off Ride-Along with an officer. Those are good things to do. But they are not the same thing as actual regular contact with management.