Equity, race, policing and social justice: The nationwide debate has come to Edmonds. The city’s search for a new police chief, the Equity and Social Justice Task Force report and an upcoming police department audit have quickly sharpened that debate locally.
State Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, who represents the 21st District that includes Edmonds, put it this way: “This is probably the safest place I have ever lived.” But, she said, “systemic racism is built into our systems; the system was not made to work for everyone and those outside it struggle to fit in and struggle to succeed.”
In January, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson’s Equity and Social Justice Task Force published a report sharply critical of the Edmonds Police Department. Among the criticisms, the report states that “it is clear that bias and diversity training is not a priority of the department or seen as a relevant need.”
The report said: “There is a lack of understanding of social justice terminology and concepts, multicultural competency, white privilege, structural racism, restorative justice and more.” From another section, the report said: “The officers interviewed, and department overall do not have a clear understanding of the community they serve.”
Earlier this week, My Edmonds News Publisher Teresa Wippel asked Mayor Mike Nelson about the task force’s view on policing in Edmonds. “We have this systemic issue,” Nelson said. “So, if we are trying to find systemic remedies, if we are trying to change how we police, how we do community policing, and they (the task force) are saying these are some things you should try, what is the harm in doing that?”
The task force interviewed Edmonds Police Acting Chief Jim Lawless, Sergeants Josh McClure and Aaron Greenmun and Detective Julie Govantes. Lawless has not issued any public statement about the report. But before it was released, in a message announcing he would not be applying for the permanent chief’s job, he said the following: “The most diverse department in our city has continued to do their job at an exceptionally high level this past year, no matter what has been put in front of them. As women and men of color, diverse ethnicities and religions, and members of the LGBTQ community, our staff is representative of those we so proudly serve, our community.”
In Olympia, state lawmakers are also looking at changes to policing. The state Legislature is working on police reforms that, if passed, will affect how Edmonds cops do their jobs.
Four bills on police use of force are now in the works:
1. Senate Bill 5066 has passed the State Senate and is now in committee in the House, as of March 5. This bill would require:
- officers to intervene when they witness another officer engaging in the use of excessive force.
- an officer who observes wrongdoing to report it their supervisor.
- Police agencies to adopt written policies on the duty to intervene and ensure statewide training at the Criminal Justice and Training Commission.
2. House Bill 1054 has passed the House and is now in committe in the Senate, as of March 5. It would prohibit chokeholds, neck restraints, tear gas, no-knock warrants, use of military gear.
3. House Bill 1310 is ready for a full House vote, as of March 5. If it passes, it goes to the Senate. It would require use of
- de-escalation tactics and alternatives to deadly force.
- limit the use of deadly force to very narrow circumstances where there is an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death.
4. House Bill 1267 has passed the House and on the way to the Senate, as of March 5. It would reate within the Governor’s office, a unit to investigate potential criminal use of deadly force by officers. That includes officer involved in-custody deaths or sexual assaults.
Another measure sparking debate is Senate Bill 5051. The bill would give Washington’s Criminal Justice and Training Commission the power to investigate police misconduct and revoke or suspend a police officer’s ability to serve. That shifts the oversight of police misconduct of cases from local departments to the state and gives the commission the power to decertify officers; to take away their badge and gun forever.
The commission has never had the staff or the powers to decertify. The Seattle Times last year reported that “Washington has never decertified an officer for using excessive force. Instead, officers with long histories of misconduct have been able to move from department to department.” SB5051 has passed the State Senate and is headed to the House.
Acting Chief Lawless only commented briefly on the bills in Olympia: “We continue to follow the ongoing discussions of the Legislature pertaining to criminal justice issues at both the state and federal levels,” he said. “It is all very fluid and some of the legislation is rapidly evolving as a result of those ongoing discussions and negotiations.”
Ross Sutton, the president of the Edmonds Police Officers Association, referred My Edmonds News to the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs (WACOPS) for any comment on the bills. WACOPS has said it either supports or is “neutral” on all the reform bills except for SB5051 on police misconduct investigations.
The council says the impact of that bill on officers could “be dramatic and unjust,” eliminate an officers’ due process, could lead to termination before any decision is made on misconduct and will undermine officers’ ability to defend themselves. The statement, sent to state senators, adds that “we believe suspension and probation are best handled at the local level.”
State Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21st District), who represents Edmonds, said he favors a lot of what is in the bills. “One of the core nuggets of what we’re dealing with now is that we have treated these communities as ‘others’ for decades,” he said. “Until we become honest with ourselves that this is happening, then we still have a very segregated society because of the way things were written for a couple hundred years.”
Rep. Ortiz-Self is also a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs. “Racial equity is at the forefront,” she told My Edmonds News. “Policing bills, and diving deeply into communities to talk with police, talk with communities of color is important; trying to bring everyone together, to fill in gaps and support law enforcement too.” At the end of the day, Ortiz-Self said, the goal is to create trust and feel safe.
The police reform bills are all still under consideration. The deadline for lawmakers to act on them is March 7.
To learn more about any of this legislation, including sponsors, a synopsis, and fiscal note, visit the Washington State Legislature’s bill information webpage:
— By Bob Throndsen