‘You have to start somewhere’ — Seattle looks at bias-free policing law

The investigation of William Wingate's arrest showed the importance of some of the new

The investigation of William Wingate’s arrest showed the importance of examining past statement and records of officers accused of biased policing (Images: CHS)

How can you legislate racism? It is a question at the heart of any effort to eliminate biased policing and one that Seattle King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson was quick to raise Wednesday during a City Council committee meeting on the subject.

The answer came from City Council president Bruce Harrell: “You have to start somewhere.” Over the past year, Harrell and his staff have been working on a series of measures to codify bias-free policing practices in Seattle. On Wednesday, Harrell unveiled the basics of his plan.

Central to the proposal is making permanent the bias-free policing requirements laid out by a federal monitor as part of Seattle Police Department’s federal consent decree over excessive use of force practices. Collecting demographic data on police interactions is particularly crucial, Harrell said.

Other components of the bill would include defining biased policing, explicitly prohibiting it in Seattle, ongoing third-party analysis of SPD’s progress, and a mechanism for victims of biased policing to seek damages from the city. Under Harrell’s proposal, victims of biased policing could file claims against the city in two ways:

  • At the Seattle Hearing Examiner, with a $5,000 ceiling for damages, not including attorney’s fees.
  • At court with no ceiling for damages, providing for attorney’s fees unless the court finds the claim to be frivolous.

Even the outline of the bill presents some obvious political and legal challenges. To ensure that every police encounter doesn’t trigger a biased policing claim, Harrell said he is considering an “anti-SLAPP” clause that would allow the city to recoup fees on frivolous complaints.

“We hope that people fight for justice, but they don’t abuse the process,” Harrell said.

Here is how Harrell’s staff laid out the need for the law:

Though new policies are now in place at SPD, and the City made changes through the consent decree process, the City has not made any binding long-term commitments to bias-free policing. Bias-free policing is at the forefront of the City’s priorities at the moment, but there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case when the City is no longer under the auspices of the consent decree. In addition, other departmental priorities will eventually arise, which could cause changes in internal department policies, training, or resource allocation for data collection. Nothing in the SMC commits the City to bias-free policing in the long term.

Although the measure was first discussed in the Education, Equity, and Governance Committee, Harrell said he would be open to moving to to a different committee for consideration.

“What is driving this effort is the relationship and safety of our community and our police officers,” Harrell said in a statement. “Our ability to build trust and bridge the divide in our community will be closely linked by making bias-free policing part of city law.”

While Harrell’s proposal has been more than a year in the making, the timing was particularly relevant given the recent national focus on police violence.

“The biggest fear I have … is what happened in Dallas and in Baton Rouge. I’m worried about Seattle becoming one of those places,” Hankerson said.

Acknowledging the difficulty in proving racial bias, Harrell said investigations into officer’s past statement and records can often be illuminating. He cited the 2015 firing of former SPD officer Cynthia Whitlatch as a prime example.

Whitlatch, an 18-year veteran officer, arrested an elderly man on Capitol Hill in a 2014 incident that was later deemed to be aggressive and biased. Whitlatch, a white officer, claimed William Wingate, a black man, pointed a golf club at her while he was standing on the corner of 12th and Pine. Wingate had used the golf club as a cane for years, but ended up in jail and charged with unlawful use of a weapon. Whitlatch was later fired after a video of the arrest was released. It was also revealed that Whitlatch had previously made controversial statements regarding “chronic black racism.”

Biased policing is certainly a concern among Seattle residents. Last year the Department of Justice federal monitor released the findings of a community survey (PDF) it commissioned to gauge just that. The report found that 55% of Seattle residents believe SPD officers engage in racial profiling. Other findings included:

  • African Americans are far more likely to be stopped in their car (28% in the last year) than whites (13%), Asian Americans (19%), or Latinos (18%)
  • 4% percent of Seattleites say they were victims of SPD racial profiling in the past year, identical to 2013. This includes 10% of Asian Americans, 9% of African Americans, and 6% of Latinos — all statistically unchanged from last year.
  • African Americans and Latinos more likely than whites to report specific problems with their interactions.
  • Most Seattleites still think that Latinos and African Americans are being mistreated by police. That’s also true for homeless people.
  • 46% percent of Seattleites believe the police commit excessive force very or somewhat often, unchanged from 45% saying the same in 2013.
  • Among people who reported bad experiences with police but didn’t file a complaint, 81% said they didn’t think filing a complaint would lead to changes in the department, and 24% said they worried about being harassed if they filed a complaint.

Overall, public perception of SPD has improved in recent years and people are reporting more equal treatment on average, according to the study. Unfortunately, SPD’s approval ratings had increased in all precincts except the East, which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District. 52% of people in the East Precinct approved of the police last year, the lowest rating in the city at the time.

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3 thoughts on “‘You have to start somewhere’ — Seattle looks at bias-free policing law

  1. The article incorrectly identifies the individual who “made controversial statements regarding ‘chronic black racism.'” It was Officer Whitlatch who made said statements, not Mr. Wingate.