City Continues Reform Efforts in Vain

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News of police abuse continues to filter in as a recent change in leadership at the Seattle Police Department has some police reform advocates nervous.

Steve Brown, a retired Seattle police captain, has stepped down from his position as compliance coordinator for the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle – a position created to serve as a liaison between various federal and local agencies to help ensure compliance with the new mandated reforms of the Seattle Police Department.

He will be replaced by Bob Scales, previously the director of the Government Affairs Section of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office during negotiations between the DOJ and the City of Seattle, much to the chagrin of some DOJ officials.

According to an interview obtained by the Seattle Times, an employee with the Department said that officials did not view Scales as “a neutral party,” likely because of his time spent negotiating on behalf of the City. While there, Scales took a strong stand against this report by the Justice Department, which found Seattle Police officers had engaged in “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force… as well as serious concerns about biased policing.”

The Time’s source also told reporters that Brown’s early departure has caused concerns over how quickly the DOJ’s scheduled reforms can be enacted.

The news came only a few months after a new high-profile case of police brutality in the Central District hit newsstands.

The Stranger’s Cienna Madrid reports that Seattle Police begrudgingly released “a controversial dash-cam video Tuesday that appears to show three officers restraining, choking, and then punching an uncooperative suspect.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.

More than a dozen cities, including Cincinatti, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh, have been forced to sign consent decrees by the Department of Justice, and many of these cities – notably Los Angelas – have continued to experience vicious police violence in spite of federal oversight.

“First there was Kelly Thomas,” notes a Los Angelas Times editorial this week, “the unarmed homeless man who was allegedly brutally beaten to death by police in Fullerton. Then there was Manuel Angel Diaz, shot in the back and killed by police last summer in Anaheim, prompting riots and clashes with officers lasting at least three days. And now comes Jose de laTrinidad, who according to a recently released coroner’s report was shot by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies five times in the back and once each in the right hip and right forearm. He was not armed.”

We should be clear that the worry for the Seattle Police Department is not rampant police violence itself, but importantly, “losing the public trust.” Similar phrases are evoked in nearly every consent decree you can find, and it makes sense when you understand precisely what the authors mean.

When, in the process of resisting the consent decrees imposed on them, city leaders concede that the community no longer trusts the police force, what they are really saying is “people are beginning to resist,” or “people are fighting back.” It’s instructive that both in Seattle and in Cincinnati, DOJ investigations were launched following riots and protests which targeted police, not to mention the heated street fighting in Oakland.

Seattle City government, in fact, is still haunted by the specter of Occupy Wall Street, who on May 1st launched successful attacks against city banks and the federal courthouse, not only outmaneuvering police, but in some instances physically overpowering them.

In the wake of similar uprisings across the U.S., authorities have realized just how quickly their cities can erupt; and of course, these ruptures require swift, violent police intervention. But it is equally recognized that this police intervention cannot operate without sufficient public support. As we saw in Oakland, California, years of police violence – culminating in one particularly  brutal attack by police on a Marine veteran – turned virtually the entire city out into the streets.

The problem for city officials, then, is this: when police violence begins to exceed what Seattle residents deem as legitimate or normal, regular police functions become increasingly difficult. The Police Department becomes bogged down in extra litigation and investigations, and officers increasingly face a hostile public in their day-to-day operations, impeding their ability to function effectively.

We should not expect, then, that the DOJ reforms will ultimately prevent beatings like that of one Isaac Ocak by Officer Larry Longley this month, or of Leo Etherly by Officer Eric Faust this November.

Instead, their important contribution to Seattle City Leadership will be to defuse anger from community leaders across the city with the creation of the Community Police Commission.

A body tasked with spearheading new efforts at “community engagement,” “public education and outreach,” and “reviews” of various police policies and departments – the new Commission will succeed where McGinn’s 20/20 plan failed.

Readers may recall Mayor McGinn’s desperate last attempt to avoid DOJ oversight by proposing 20 reforms of his own for the failing Seattle Police. The plan faltered and eventually failed, however, largely because the city was unable to secure the support of many community organizations.

Not so with the new commission, which was not only called for by a veritable who’s who of Seattle’s self-appointed community leadership – but which enthusiastically accepted all of their applications.

By bringing on groups like the ACLU, the John T. Williams Organizing Committee, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism,  or Mothers for Police Accountability, the city and the DOJ have gone a long way in preempting further protests and actions against police by creating new channels for people to feel as though they’re being listened to. Hence the continuing police violence, and not a protestor in sight.

…….

The interaction begins around 2:30 and by 4:10 Officer Faust is punching Etherly while two other officers are holding his arms out across the hood of the police cruiser.

Here is footage provided by Komo news on the beating of Mr. Ocak by Officer Larry Longley.

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