Five Reforms From Seattle

imagesSeattle City Council President and Former Police Officer: Five Key Post-Ferguson Police Reforms

[U.S. history plays a powerful role in shaping the reactions to police power. But if we understand how we arrived here, our nation’s police can plan a better future. The following article was written by Tim Burgess, president of the Seattle City Council. Tim is a Seattle native and has served as a city police officer and detective, before being elected to the city council in 2007. He has been involved in local community and government matters for the past 45 years. He brings great insight for the road ahead from Ferguson and other cities which have begin to question the motives and tactics of their police. Tim’s experiences and world view have convinced him of the power of people to create positive change.]

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“It has been just over a week since the grand jury made its decision in the Ferguson case, my hope is that we can soon get beyond the conflicting evidence presented to the jurors and focus on the undeniable and powerful subtext that permeates this story. Understanding this subtext holds the key to the change I believe we all want to see. We must also identify specific actions that will contribute to this change or risk losing an opportunity to move forward.

“Among African Americans, tension and conflict with the police is deeply rooted in decades of mistrust and weariness over police misconduct, corruption and persistent crime in many neighborhoods. It is a relationship that is profoundly troubled and, as we have seen, all too often leads to tragic consequences.

“Tragic for black men and boys who are arrested and imprisoned or killed by police at a disproportionate rate. Tragic for black families who often live in neighborhoods with high rates of crime and who urgently desire effective police services. Tragic for entire cities that must carry the moral and monetary costs of this reality.

“How did we get here? And, looking forward, what can we do to change it?

“Following the Civil War, the scourge of slavery essentially continued in parts of the American south until World War II through the enforcement of vagrancy and loitering laws that created jail populations to be exploited by unscrupulous companies — one of the largest being U. S. Steel — seeking cheap labor. The police were the enforcers of these policies…

“After World War II, the police continued as enforcers of Jim Crow laws and practices designed to suppress African Americans. During the civil rights era, it was the police who ‘enforced the law’ and restored order, often in terribly brutal ways…

“This history carries deep implications for contemporary views about the legitimacy of police actions. One can understand why the legitimacy of the police — their presence and their actions — is often questioned.

“It’s tough for all of us to acknowledge this painful history. We would rather forget it, hoping it would just go away, but the residual effects hang on. We see these effects all around us. A young black man in our country today has a greater chance of spending time in prison than graduating from college. Nearly half of the African American children in Seattle Public Schools can’t read at grade level in the Third Grade, a powerful predictor they won’t graduate from high school. These realities should shock our senses; that they are race based should shame us to action.

“The good news is that we can tear the barriers down. We now know that investing early in the lives of our children — especially children of color and those living in poverty — can overcome the barriers. Evidence-based programs that are proven to improve health, reduce criminal behavior, improve education attainment, and boost employment and wage earning power exist and Seattle invests in them…

“We can change policing, too.  Here are five specific steps I continue to advocate for that could enhance police-community relationships, especially in the African American community, and lead to more effective, constitutional policing.

  • First, we should fully embrace “problem-oriented policing,” a major philosophical shift that positions officers as community-based problem solvers rather than just crime responders. It’s a fundamentally different approach that is proactive rather than reactive. It involves every police officer, not just a few assigned to community relations or community police teams. It positions officers as partners with residents working together to solve clearly defined problems…
  • Second, we should adopt policing strategies that focus on the problem places spread across the city where crime is concentrated and anchored. About half of all reported crime in Seattle takes place on fewer than 7 percent of our city blocks… The policing of place requires strong outreach and partnerships with the people who live and work in these areas. Done right, with a problem-solving mindset, it can be an effective crime reduction effort that builds trust and legitimacy between the people and the police.
  • Third, while shifting to the policing of place, we should also increase the attention paid to persistent, high frequency offenders who commit a hugely disproportionate amount of crime. A keen focus on those who cause the most harm in our neighborhoods will receive strong and broad support. And it works…
  • Fourth, we should change how we select, train, motivate, supervise, reward and promote our police officers. Policing today requires extensive knowledge of human psychology and skills in crisis intervention, de-escalation, problem identification and problem-solving. A much greater emphasis needs to be placed on this new skill set at the time officers are hired, as well as in how we manage, reward, and promote them…
  • Fifth, we should greatly enhance officer training and set specific expectations around de-escalation and discretionary judgment. Michael Brown may very well be alive today had Officer Darren Wilson paused after the initial encounter in his patrol vehicle and called for emergency back-up rather than getting out of his vehicle and attempting to arrest Brown all by himself. Stopping and reassessing when the adrenaline is surging and an officer feels threatened is one of the most difficult decisions to make, but it can be learned…
  • “Implementing these five steps will advance effective and constitutional policing and build strong community understanding and support. But focusing on the future does not mean we should ignore the past. In order to find our way out of our current situation, we also must keep talking about what got us here in the first place.”

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