Howard Schultz, Chief O’Toole host Central District forum on racism and policing

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(Image: Casey Jaywork via )

Thursday afternoon, the 23rd and Jackson Starbucks was packed with people wall-to-wall: many of color, some white, lots of green-apron baristas, lots of navy-blue Seattle cops. And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole were there, too, for a community forum on police and race.

“We all know that there are very serious problems going on in America today around racism, racial tension,” Schultz told the crowd. He said that with his company “heartbroken” over the tension between black communities and police, Starbucks has decided to use “our stores and our scale to elevate a national conversation” on the topic. Stay tuned, he added, for a big, related announcement sometime next week. There’s no word on if the 23rd and Jackson event’s “Coffee with a Cop” branding will stick.

UPDATE 3/17/2015: That “big, related announcement” has been made. With a new “Race Together” campaign, Starbucks reportedly “wants its baristas to talk about race in America.” It hasn’t necessarily got off to a great start.

Cops, baristas, and residents came together — via a couple cordless microphones and a YWCA facilitator — for an extended open discussion on the precise nature and potential solutions of the problems highlighted by the #BlackLivesMatter protests, which have rocked Seattle over the past half year.

Some pointed toward the economic context of crime. As one speaker put it: “When people steal and snatch iPhones and stuff like that, it’s usually to sell it to go get money to eat or whatever it may be. And so I think [we need to] focus on the economic opportunities [of young people]… When a person owns a business, they have a different relationship with the police.”

Others noted the role of gentrification, describing how new, white residents of the Central District will sometimes call the police after seeing longtime black residents visiting family or hanging out in the park.

The decision to host the forum at the 23rd and Jackson location of the global coffee chain came 17 years after it was first announced Starbucks was teaming with investors like NBA great Magic Johnson on a string of “inner-city stores” following the successful opening of the Starbucks cafe at the busy Central District innersection.

Thursday, Rev. Harriett Walden gained applause and an “Amen!” when she said, “The police are used sometimes as a tool against the black community by white people.” One black resident of 28th street described his long-habituated fear of police: “I’m 35 and I still get nervous when I’m walking down the street when I see the police… I know you guys don’t have to go through it so you can’t sympathize with me. That’s fine. I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid. But now I got a little kid and I gotta raise him the same way.”

An SPD officer said that he sees bias run in the opposite direction. “I will deal with a lot of hostility within the community [while wearing my uniform],” he said. “But I can take the uniform off and walk around in my street clothes and I’m treated very differently. Now, is that a fault of mine, or is that a fault of somebody else’s? We’re dealing with some other people’s prejudices.” Another audience member responded that the power imbalance between police and civilians implies asymmetrical responsibility. “I think it’s far more important that the police respect us,” she said, “because as the police they have the power of life and death in their hands every single day…When you have this kind of power, when you can take someone’s life because they are not being deferential to you, because they’re walking in the street and they don’t stand in the sidewalk, like Michael Brown, they can end up dead.”

For her part, O’Toole said that she was mostly “here to listen” but supports the Community Policing Commission’s recommendations for reforms to the SPD. “The more independence the OPA can have, the better,” she said. “If people have complaints against the police and they’re investigated independently, they’ll have more trust in the police.” See a transcript of CHS’s post-forum interview with O’Toole, below.

But as one speaker noted, it’s not clear that the folks who go to a Starbucks forum are the true stakeholders in all of this. “This meeting is a group of people speaking on a group of people who are not here,” he said. “Yes, we’re [mostly] black, but for the most part, we can all agree, we’re not the targeted ones. Right? Because there are a lot of professionals, there’s a lot of white people, there’s a lot of older people. The people that need to be here are not present today.”

UPDATE: The next step on the Starbucks national stage? Its “Race Together” initiative hasn’t gone well.

Here is CHS’s interview with Chief O’Toole on police reform and the #BlackLivesMatter protests:

In terms of the OPA taking over for alleged officer misconduct and similar incidents, do you know what needs to happen or a timeline–
They do everything now. Everything—

Did that replacement already happen?
Yes. Every incident of officer misconduct goes to OPA. Now, in the case of Officer Whitlatch, we actually had a community member come to us with Mr. Wingate, and they said they didn’t wanna go to OPA. They wanted kind of a procedural justice response. So Deputy Chief [Carmen] Best and I contacted the city attorney and we arranged to go back to the judge, have the case dismissed, have the charges dismissed, you know, we apologized to Mr. Wingate, we gave him back his golf club and all of that. But we made a decision since then that, whether the community wants to got OPA or not, we’re gonna send the case to OPA anyway. Just to make sure we’re completely transparent and that we welcome that independent review by OPA. So, it’s still a work in progress, we wanna make sure that nothing can slip through the cracks. Now, OPA just sent me back a case, for instance, that they said didn’t really violate the rules and regulations, but they’re sending it back to me for supervisory action. So I can decide what to do. I can sit down and reprimand somebody, and make a notation of it in their file. I can issue a written reprimand. But if I’m going to suspend people or fire people, the recommendation comes from OPA. All serious cases now are going to OPA. Even whether they come to us or directly to OPA.

One of the audience members suggested institutionalized racism training for police officers. Is that something that you would support?
We’re doing it. We’re actually doing it. That’s the course that I said I actually sat through. So we have a bias free policing training, and I actually did a lot of soul searching myself as I sat through that course. I mean, I think everybody in that class said, Wow, you know, we’ve got a better understanding of implicit bias and some of the baggage we all bring to the table, whether we intend to or not. So I thought that was really enlightening for me, and I hope that the police officers will gain as much from it as I did. But we’re gonna continue all of that training, we have to continue all of that training. I welcome you or anybody else that wants to come in and sit through it.

The Black Lives Matter protests — that’s been kind of a flashpoint for tensions between the community and the police. Do you think that anything positive has been accomplished by those protests, that they’ve moved us forward at all?
Well, first of all I’m a big proponent of the First Amendment. You may find that hard to believe, but, you know, I’m a police officer who’s kind of a libertarian —

It seems like you’re in a tough spot between contending constituencies —
Yeah, but you know what, you just kind of go, you do what you think is right. So, at this point — There are different types of demonstrations. We worked very closely with Rev. Walden and Rev. Willis and others to organize, to help them organize a lot of the large demonstrations that have occurred, you know, to try to help facilitate them. Because, you know, you get 800 or a thousand people and you want to make sure everybody’s safe, you want to make sure that if an ambulance or a fire truck needs to get some place, they can. So, you know, we’ve worked with them to allow them to express their First Amendment rights, and really try to support them. So, those are the least challenging. Then we’ve had the vast majority of demonstrations have been unpermitted, which is fine too. You know, here in Seattle we — You know, I think it’s a wonderful community and people come out and engage, and we need to facilitate that. So whether people are permitted or [un]permitted, I don’t really care. You know, the one time, the times that we will re-route marchers, things like that, is that all the sudden people are going in the opposite direction of traffic and we’re concerned about public safety.

Or on one occasion I remember downtown, there was a fire and we were trying to get fire apparatus through. So we will from time to time reroute a march, but we try to be as tolerant as possible and facilitate things. Now occasionally, you know, we’ve had dozens and dozens of demonstrations since Ferguson, the Ferguson decision, and we’ve had a total of 44 arrests. I mean, I’d rather not have any arrests. You know what? It doesn’t serve anybody’s purposes to arrest people. But if there’s a public safety threat, or I guess in four instances there’s been confrontation at the line where people have tried to cross the line — the most recent one was when the crowd was trying to go to the freeway — then, unfortunately, there’ll be a confrontation and arrests are made. We haven’t had any serious injuries, thank God, of protesters or police. We’ve had two broken windows. And we’ve had 44 arrests. 44 too many arrests. You know, we’ve had a few contentious battles. There are some requests — I mean, there are some complaints at OPA right now, and I hope we can learn…There are a handful. I don’t know how many there are, but there aren’t a lot, but we’re taking them all very seriously. We’re gathering all of the open source video that’s available, you know, try to get a sense for what happened at those scenes. And first, if we can learn from those experiences, we will. And if police officers need to be held accountable in any of those instances, they’ll be held accountable.

Months ago, you told the city council that the SPD had not been moving the protesters around the city to different areas, like telling them which areas they could go to or not go to. Am I —
Oh, we’re not saying to people, Oh, you need to go back to Cap—I mean, I think downtown, you’ve seen a lot of protests downtown, and that’s great. I mean, we—Again, in other cities, they’re very strict about permitting. We’re not here. And that’s a good thing, I think it’s part of the culture here, so that’s fine. But we have redirected, I’m not going to say we haven’t redirected protesters. But the officers out there on the front lines have told me, and the commanders, have told me that when they redirected protests, it’s been because they’re concerned about public safety issues. They’re concerned about either the safety of the protesters or they’re concerned about other people that—You know, again the time that there was a fire, where they had to move people in a different direction. So, if we need to—If people have different opinions on that, I’m willing to listen to them if they can cite particular instances where they feel they were treated unfairly or inappropriately, then they should tell me and tell OPA. We can learn from them.

I don’t know if this fits into inappropriate, but there was one of the early protests after the Darren Wilson non-indictment came out, where I was with the protesters and they were trying to move downtown and it seemed like the police were specifically trying to push the protests up to Capitol Hill and away from downtown. Was that a public safety issue, or do you know anything about that?
Yeah, I’ll be honest with you, in that particular instance if I did know, I would tell you. And I’m happy to, if you have any open source video or if you have anything you can refer to me, I’d be happy to take a look at it. And our officers, it’s interesting, I know that our bicycle officers, because— The whole issue of public order is really evolving, and I’ve always been an advocate of a softer approach. I did a lot of work in Northern Ireland on the peace process, so I saw —

You were on the national police, you sort of reformed their —
Well, no, that was Republic of Ireland. But back in the 1990s, I actually worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland where we created a new model for policing and security. Because you remember how contentious— I mean, they had huge public order issues there, and we learned that if you come to an event with riot gear, you can assume you’ll have a riot. So you really need to apply a softer approach. Start with a softer approach, and as the situation escalates, of course sometimes you have to, you know, then don the riot gear and use the more serious equipment. But our preference is to keep things as soft as possible, and try to calibrate that according to the crowd. And so that’s what we’re trying to do here, but it’s a work in progress. Prior to the Ferguson announcement, we had over 300 demonstrations in the city last year, and I think only three of them had resulted in arrests. I mean, we had less than five arrests, pre-Ferguson. For the whole year, 300 demonstrations.

I think that’s a real testament to the people in the community who demonstrate here, you know, who demonstrate in a constructive way, and I think it was a tribute to the restraint that the police demonstrated, you know, prior to Ferguson. Ferguson happened and of course the anger and a lot of the protests are actually directed at the police. So I think emotions are, rightfully on both sides, it’s just more tense. And we’re trying to figure out, Okay, how can we learn from this so that we can still have these vibrant demonstrations and facilitate the exercise of people’s First Amendment rights, you know, without anybody getting hurt and without jeopardizing public safety. We just want to learn. We don’t claim to have all the answers. This is a work in progress.

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6 thoughts on “Howard Schultz, Chief O’Toole host Central District forum on racism and policing

  1. Who organized this event, and how was it publicized? How can we learn about the next one? I’m at 23rd and Jackson nearly every day to take the bus, stop at that Starbucks at least once a week, have been staying up to date on #BlackLivesMatter events (but am admittedly bad at Twitter), and read local news blogs daily and I had no idea this event was happening. And I’m one of those white community members that need to show up and listen to folks from the community about their experiences!

    Also, I was at Red Apple last night and saw that something was happening at the Starbucks, but it did not look like a welcoming, community event — at least four police officers lined the front entrance to the store, and a big, white SPD van was siting idle in the Red Apple lot.

    • The given reason for lack of publicity is that Starbucks/SPD/YWCA just decided earlier this week to do it. A cynic might speculate that it was selectively publicized to certain groups.

    • The Coffee With A Cop (CWAC) program was launched by the Hawthorne, CA PD several years ago and isn’t a creation of SPD or Starbuck’s- many are held at other businesses around the country. One could go to the CWAC website for future events but SPD doesn’t register their events on the CWAC website. The only department in the Seattle area that does register their events is the Des Moines PD. Some departments across the country have managed to publish their CWAC events several months out. The CWAC planning information states the event should be planned at least 6-8 weeks out with press releases out 2 weeks prior. The whole program is based around the idea of getting to know the officers better- no agenda or speeches just a Q&A and a chance to express neighborhood concerns. So far Chief O’Toole has made some steps in the right direction but she has a lot more housecleaning to do. I really hope she chooses to hire more Seattle residents as she chases the ineffective officers from the force. Mayor McGinn was right when he said ‘It’s hard to have a good local police force if the police aren’t local.’ While it’s illegal to make residency a requirement not having residency incentives was a huge miss by the city during the last contract negotiations with the Officers Guild. Hopefully Chief O’Toole brings it to the table. I was disappointed also with the lack of publicity as I could have made the Thursday event if I had heard about it. I’d love to know if the SPD residency is still below 20% and hear how Chief O’Toole feels about a more local SPD.

  2. Quote from the article: But as one speaker noted, it’s not clear that the folks who go to a Starbucks forum are the true stakeholders in all of this. “This meeting is a group of people speaking on a group of people who are not here,” he said. “Yes, we’re [mostly] black, but for the most part, we can all agree, we’re not the targeted ones. Right? Because there are a lot of professionals, there’s a lot of white people, there’s a lot of older people. The people that need to be here are not present today.”

    See you in two weeks

  3. Everyone is a stakeholder in discussions such as this. Assigning a ranking to different categorizations of community members resolves nothing and sidetracks the issue. I would agree if it is asserted that high schools would be good locations for mini town halls for young people to attend and discuss these matters with people like the chief and the mayor. Youth shelters could be another worthwhile location. But all are stakeholders.

    I would be cautious about equating economic situations with criminality. If the majority of poor people were doing crime no one could leave their home. Some people who are punching community members in the face and taking their iphones are doing so for reasons that are far from economics. I agree though about the problems created by gentrification. I know one white, liberal college professor who bought a house in the CD and is afraid to talk to black folk. Its unfounded and disrespectful. It is true some white newcomers have zero concept of what is actually suspicious as opposed to socializing residents in the CD have engaged in all their lives in their neighborhood. I would also like to point out the problem of other issues and agendas getting placed on the backs of the African American community.

    Anarchists, bearded hipsters, and shining white liberals do not speak for the black community and when people try to afix things such as their own anti authority political beliefs or project “class warfare” onto strangers just because of the color of their skin no community is served constructively. Guess what, there isn’t some magic white people’s club outside of Wall Street (or CEOs) where the average person is secretly having an awesome and easy life just because they are white. And SPD shot my downstairs white neighbor dead a few years ago. To be clear, economic realities, political views, personal opinions and generational differences within the black community are highly diverse.

    The relationship with police in Seattle is a multidimensional reality within the black community and they are best qualified to evolve this relationship. I have met black officers here who are highly regarded within the community who work harder for black youth than most anyone I have met. I meet African Americans who want accountability for violent criminals in their community. Everyone wants policing that both supports and protects all the communities of Seattle. I hope to see meetings like this expanded and continue.

    • I agree completely that, for the most part, criminals are not mugging people, or committing other crimes, so that they can buy food….that’s just baloney, and a weak rationalization for crime. They are doing so to buy adult toys of various kinds, drugs etc. I wish people, such as the speaker at Starbuck’s, would stop excusing criminal behavior.