There are problems with how the Seattle Police Department handles protests. At 1pm on Friday afternoon, 19 people gathered to discuss SPD’s crowd control tactics with consultants hired to report on the issues. Six were invited to the meeting with the Center for Policing Equity consultants. The rest had to ask for invitations or were invited by other attendees. As a freelance photojournalist with a focus on social justice issues, I spend a lot of time at protests and demonstrations in close proximity to both police and protesters. When I heard about Friday’s meeting, I requested an invitation so I could tell the consultants what I had experienced. Here is what we talked about Friday.
The meeting began with Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. She began by giving the history of her interest concerning “public order and demonstration management” with anecdotes from Northern Ireland and her experience with the DNC in Boston in 2004.
Chief O’Toole mentioned the importance of bringing in “…people with completely independent, objective perspectives and have them talk to cops, talk to members of the community, and listen to anybody who wants to contribute to this process, and figure out how we here in Seattle could get better at this.”
O’Toole also clarified the role the center’s consultants were playing in the study. “They’re doing this for nothing, it’s all at their costs, they are not our paid consultants. They’re doing this because they think it’s the right thing to do and I guess that’s what the center does. They look at situations and produce knowledge and I think it’s great because it underscores your independence.”
Sheley Secrest, the vice president of the NAACP Seattle chapter was in attendance. “We echo those concerns of who was invited to sit at this table, not to put the burden back on us, so that we have to be the ones to engage the community,” she said. “At this point, the police department, you all know, these are the same activists, you guys know who we are. Let’s get the right people at the table for these types of meetings. Not where we have to engage them. It would mean a lot to the community to see you make that gesture.”
We were told the first meeting with the consultants was with civilian leadership from OPA where they were briefed on current investigations and complaints filed, second was MID and the Downtown Seattle Association, third meeting was Pastor John, Chad Goller-Sojourner, Shawn from SeaSol, the newly elected executive director from Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, and the fourth and final meeting was with activists.
District 3 candidate and Urban League CEO Pamela Banks said she was told about the meeting before the holidays, but expressed concern that she wasn’t going to sit in a meeting because her protest days were over and she wasn’t getting her “butt kicked” but she knew people who were. She also made a list for Chief O’Toole but when she got the invitation she saw the “usual suspects.” She talked about how she wasn’t the best representative, but “if this was to bring us together to say who is and you’re going to keep doing more of these, I think that’s what needs to be laid out, because how it played out in The Stranger, it looks like we were handpicked and it was a closed door thing.”
During introductions, attendees were encouraged to provide names of activists and community leaders that should have been invited to meeting. One of those names, Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School teacher who was pepper sprayed while talking on a cell phone by SPD last MLK Day, was mentioned several times.
After diving into the meeting, it was soon realized that the shroud of secrecy was in fact not only unnecessary, but detrimental to the process. Those around the table provided anecdotes based on their experiences both with police interactions at protests and demonstrations and generally as they go about their daily lives.
Communication and transparency were common topics as were the discrepancies between different protests, for example Black Lives Matter and environmental demonstrations. The occasions bicycles are used to hit protesters and examples of unlawful arrests were given to the consultants as they occasionally fixated on single bizarre examples of arrests and seemingly arbitrary street closures and the questioning by leadership of decisions made during confrontations.
All in all, were more organizers, members of the media (who are often the victims of arrests, injury, and intimidation from law enforcement during protests and demonstrations), and additional activists included, more could have possibly been accomplished.
One participant, an activist with Black Lives Matters, said after the meeting, “O’Toole is just checking the box, like Pam, Sheley and Sarra said, cause that’s how it felt. In the end it felt like a venting circle.”
SPD has said Friday’s meeting will be followed by more opportunities for feedback and representatives from the Center for Policing Equity said it was their hope that reports from the process would be made public.