Black Lives, Blue Privilege
Over the past several months, many Seattleites have become familiar with the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two African-American men killed last year by white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York respectively. The fact that the officers responsible for these deaths have effectively been found to be justified (through the lack of any criminal charges or substantive professional discipline) in their use of lethal force against these two unarmed Black men– alongside the police killings of John Crawford III (Ohio), Akai Gurley (Brooklyn), 12-year old Tamir Rice (in a playground in Cleveland, Ohio) among many others – has ignited a nationwide movement for an end to racist policing and violence under the slogan Black Lives Matter.
Many in Seattle have come together to support this movement, lending voices and bodies to the call for justice for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and other victims of police violence, and making space for difficult conversations around race and policing. Local ongoing protests are helping maintain the momentum in this national struggle, as folks of color speak out about the ongoing trauma they experience at the hands of police officers, who never seem to face any real consequences for the harassment and brutality they visit on the communities they claim to serve.
Seattle has had its own casualties in the conflict between communities of color and police over the years: John T. Williams, Aaron Roberts, David Walker, Michael Randall Ealy and so many others. In March of 2011, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) recognized that the problem of SPD officers’ use of excessive force (including lethal force) was so great that they chose to launch a civil rights investigation. Nine months later, the DOJ found that “SPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law. Our investigation further raised serious concerns that some SPD policies and practices, particularly those related to pedestrian encounters, could result in discriminatory policing.” The City of Seattle and SPD made an agreement (a “consent decree”) with DOJ to make numerous reforms, particularly around biased policing and use of force policies, but many of these have not been put into action, for reasons to be examined later.
During the DOJ investigation, however, many observers noted that SPD already has an oversight body, known as the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). Created by the City Council in the wake of the 1999 WTO protests, the OPA’s mission is to record and investigate community members’ complaints about police misconduct and supposedly ensure that police officers would face actual consequences when their use of force isn't found to be justified. A clear question arose out of the DOJ’s findings: how could the OPA have missed the “pattern or practice of excessive force” by SPD?
The answer is simple: the OPA, while frequently billed as “independent” and “civilian” is a department of SPD itself, and all its meaningful operations are in the hands of police officials: investigations of complaints against officers are carried out by other SPD officers, and final decisions around discipline of officers are made by the Chief of Police. The OPA has civilian staff (including a director, auditor, some deputy directors and administrative staff) and a seven-person Review Board (known as OPARB), but their work is primarily at the middle of the process, reviewing the results of investigations (again, carried out by SPD officers of other SPD officers) and forwarding recommendations for any potential discipline to the Chief, who again, has final say. (For nearly fifteen years, the OPA Director's office was actually located right next to the Chief of Police's office; the department finally moved to its own “independent” space in 2014).
Further, the OPARB never has access to uncensored files (officers' names and other identifying information is crossed out). The result of all this is that each case is treated as an individual episode, so identifying patterns of misconduct becomes more difficult. Also, the OPA Review Board are bound by confidentiality agreements (gag orders, effectively) from releasing any identifying information about police officers in their reports, making it illegal for them let the public know about any abuses of force they might learn about. The lack of true independence and control over investigations and information by SPD lead to a predictable outcome: the OPA process almost never leads to any police officers being found guilty of any significant wrongdoing, and thus, they almost never face any penalty greater than a verbal reprimand or “training referral.”
Another project within OPA is the mediation program, an alternative process launched in 2005 where instead of filing a formal complaint, officers and community members get together with an arbitrator to discuss “misunderstandings” that may have come up during a particular incident. But again, this process is heavily weighed in favor of cops: the involved officer has to agree to the mediation, the conversation is confidential, no formal discipline comes out of a session, and a community member can't decide to file a formal complaint if they aren't satisfied with the mediation. The process also frames community-police conflict as generally a matter of interpersonal miscommunications and misunderstandings, instead of societal prejudices and assumptions around race, gender, and class that become institutional norms of most police departments and drive policing practices. True resolution in community-police conflict can't be accomplished by simple one-on-one interpersonal conversations, but requires confronting the policies and culture that led to the incident as well, an ongoing project at the community level.
Community activists and the families of victims of police violence have spoken out about the failure of the OPA to fulfill its mission to make police more accountable. It has taken the DOJ investigation and consent decree, however, to put policy changes around policing on the radar of city officials. The Community Police Commission – appointed by Mayor Mike McGinn and drawing on various Seattle communities – was created in March of 2013 to provide community input and draw up a set of recommended changes and reforms; the CPC released this in early April 2014. Shortly afterward, Mayor Ed Murray issued his own plan around police reform, which included both support of some of the CPC’s ideas (including greater transparency and communication between the OPA, SPD and community members, the creation of community-based channels, such as community organizations, for filing complaints with OPA, and an online complaint status tracking system), rejections of others (such as subpoena power for OPA, so it can better gather evidence of misconduct), and a few of his own (making the CPC a permanent body to study and propose reforms to the OPA system on an ongoing basis).
These ideas, along with others such as body cameras, independent prosecutors for all incidents where police use lethal force, an end to increasing militarization of police through grants of equipment and training, even abolishing police departments altogether are all being debated not just here in Seattle, but in communities across the nation. However, both the CPC and Mayor’s Office indicate that most of the proposed reforms around discipline and appeal processes will be subject to labor negotiations, meaning acceptance or rejection by the police officers’ union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). And thus, we finally can address a major obstacle to ending racist policing in Seattle that rarely gets much attention – SPOG’s use of labor rights as a cover for blocking any substantive community control over SPD, and the City’s acceptance of the union’s right to do so.
SPOG’s history reveals it to be an institution opposed to any real progress in the struggle to end racist policing. The union has historically blocked any attempts by the public or city officials to make police more accountable to the communities they claim to serve – including the creation of the fairly ineffective OPA. (A specific example is SPOG’s efforts to block the release of dashboard video camera footage for independent examination in several cases of alleged brutality and misconduct. SPG and SPD continually argue that these videos are SPD property, and not public records, and thus, not subject to public disclosure laws.) The hostility with which they have done so – through past leadership such as Kevin Haistings, Rich O’Neill and current president Ron Smith – echoes the more recent inflammatory statements of NYC police union head Patrick Lynch, who has repeatedly accused NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio of encouraging violence towards police by simply acknowledging that racist policing exists in New York.
As reported by the local arts-weekly The Stranger in 2011, officers and police officials frequently publish articles in the union’s monthly newsletter, The Guardian, that include jokes “about shooting African Americans and showing contempt for civilian oversight.” In fall 2010, Officer Steve Pomper wrote that “city officials conducting racial and social justice training are ‘the enemy’” and labeling such initiatives as “socialist policies” being “inflicted” on officers. Such writings, showing a blatant disrespect for and superiority over the Seattle community at large and an opposition to addressing racial injustice are common fare in the SPD’s institutional paper of record, and must be seen as a dominant influence on SPD culture and officers’ relationship with the public.
While there may be many different perspectives on how to end racist policing and police violence in Seattle, it is clear that the struggle here requires specifically calling out SPOG as an enemy of the community, and challenging its blocking of change under the guise of protecting officers’ labor rights. We cannot allow SPOG and the City to bargain away the rights of community members to be safe from violence in their own communities. We have to be plain in recognizing that police officers are not like any other public employee, but that we have enabled them to have powers unique in our society – the right to deprive people of freedom (through stops, detention and arrest) and the use of physical force (including lethal force) in service of maintaining “order” – that the rest of us do not share. Along with these unique powers should come unique responsibilities for how officers use them, and real, substantive consequences when they abuse them.
We need to challenge the superior status (“blue privilege”) we grant police officers in our society and the belief that their choices and actions – particularly those ending in violence – are somehow automatically more noble than other people, and thus, less worthy of questioning or repercussions. Some would argue the risks police officers take in carrying out their duties balance these powers out, but they take these risks by choice, and the privileges and powers they enjoy as result are so great compared to the rest of us that it is only reasonable to place exceptional restraints on their power. Police officers are people, awash in the sea of oppressive norms – racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, ableism – that we all are, and just as capable of bringing those norms and values to work with them as anyone else.
When we allow any institution that serve communities to operate without any real consequences for the actions of the individuals that cause damage in those communities, it will inevitably become an oppressive institution. So the local struggle against police brutality and abuse must include confronting clear obstacles, such as SPOG and the institutional power it wields over the current OPA and any future efforts to create greater community control over SPD. We must call out the failures of OPA, push past the reforms proposed by CPC and the Mayor, and press for radically different ideas while doing so; otherwise, we’ll likely just end up with some small changes to an already flawed system.
All those who truly believe that Black Lives Matter need to fight for an end to all forms of anti-Black racist violence, including those enacted by police on Black bodies and lives. These should include not just Black men, the most visible targets of these crimes, but all members of the Black community are victimized by police and the criminal justice system, including Black women, queer folks, trans* folks and youth. This is not spreading ourselves too thin, or “dividing the movement”, but making sure that our liberation will be all the more full and total.