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

Posted on Categories Public Safety 1368
FROM: JC Harris
PO Box 13094
Des Moines, WA 98198
(206) 878-0578

TO: 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 seem 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 decidedly 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 deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Of course, I welcome any solutions that might be put found to prevent such tragedies. 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, 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 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