The national debate over equity, social justice and policing is now an Edmonds debate. My Edmonds News has launched a series of stories to examine what is at stake and how the dialogue could change the city’s approach to policing, equity and social services.
“We are at the beginning of the next era of policing.”
With those words, the recently retired Executive Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, Sue Rahr, helped set the stage for changes we will see in Edmonds and across the country — changes in equity, social justice, racism and policing.
“It’s communities like Edmonds who’ve said this is not our issue for so long and have thought this is not our issue,” Rahr told My Edmonds News.
A small sign of that coming era: Edmonds police last year changed how officers handle some suspended driving license cases. In most of these incidents, police no longer file a criminal charge for third degree driving while license suspended. One-third of all prosecutions in Edmonds Municipal Court have been Driving Without License 3 cases. Now, when officers cite drivers who do not have a valid license, it is a civil violation.
At the time police made that change, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson said, “Criminalizing the stand-alone offense of Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree can lead an individual down a spiral of debt, inability to drive, loss of job, and worse.” That downward spiral, Nelson said, hits those who are low income and people of color hardest.
Much more change is coming. Twelve new laws on police practices passed the Washington State Legislature this session. Governor Jay Inslee said they create the strongest police accountability system in the nation: “The crises of the past year have unmasked long-standing inequities in our society,” the governor said.
Among the many requirements, the new laws create an Office of Independent Investigation to oversee police use of excessive force; mandate more thorough internal reviews of officer misconduct; prohibit chokeholds and neck restraints; limit the use of tear gas and require that officers who witness excessive use of force must report that. All police, statewide, must make these changes — some by July 1 this year.
See more details of this legislation in our summary here.
One of the new laws, sponsored by State Rep. Strom Peterson of Edmonds, requires that all jail, police and prison suspect interviews must be electronically recorded if the suspect is a juvenile or if the interrogation relates to a felony. Peterson, a Democrat who represents the 21st District, said the new law will help re-establish trust in communities:
“At its most basic, recording interrogations will keep innocent people out of jail and prison,” he said. “This is especially true when it comes to young individuals who might not fully understand their rights.”
The local impact of George Floyd
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent nationwide protests – coupled with police use-of-force incidents across the U.S. – fueled what has been a decades-long demand for change
Some in Edmonds marched; ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs sprouted in many neighborhoods; the mayor and city council spoke up, as did those who fear that police are being persecuted and stripped of the powers they need to combat crime.
The roots of the renewed protests over race, equity and policing are deep and go back generations.
Derrick Johnson, President & CEO of the NAACP, pointed to a recent poll by National Public Radio that “suggests that white and Black Americans still have very different views on race and policing.” Johnson says that poll showed 61% of Black Americans believe that “local police treat people of color more harshly than white people.” Only 15% of white Americans hold that same belief.
At the heart of the debate over police reform is the concept of implicit bias.
“Basically (implicit bias) is subconscious or below-conscious associations between groups and trait,” like race, age or gender, sayid Dr. Bryant Marks, a nationally recognized expert on the topic. During a training session with a suburban New York police force, Marks said that such bias “can sometimes lead to prejudice. For example, if you think ‘elderly,’ you might think ‘frail or hard of hearing.’ Those unconscious associations often have a negative context, which can change the way you treat people.”
Marks is a college professor and the founding Director of the National Training Institute on Race and Equity. He has taught 2,000 police chiefs and 18,000 officers in the U.S. He’s spoken to Snohomish County law enforcement and held training for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Former Edmonds Chief Al Compaan has been through Marks’ training. Compaan saidMarks also conducted training for front-line officers at the State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
In those training sessions, called the “Hidden Biases of Good People,” Marks points out that biases are formed over a lifetime, and that it’s “part of basic human psychology.”
“Police officers,” he tells his training sessions, “spend 95% of their time with the worst 5% of society. But he adds: “Don’t think there is a correlation between bias and police work. They don’t have biases because they’re police, they have biases because they’re human.”
Added Sue Rahr, who served as King County Sheriff before leading the State Criminal Justice Training Commission: “I think all of us raised in this country can’t escape a life time of having stereotypes fed into our heads, so certainly there is a factor of racism in everything, whether it’s a school teacher or a police office — it permeates our society.”
Rahr, a decorated veteran cop, said people ask,”Why do I have to learn about the history of racism and policing; that doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ She said that is a very honest and legitimate question. But, Rahr explained, “We have done an extraordinarily poor job in this country of educating people about the complete history of the United States.”
And, she added, that to understand the criminal justice system, we have to understand how it was designed, was built and how it evolved:
“The criminal justice system, in particular, was used as a tool after (Civil War) reconstruction to create a slave labor force; because slavery was outlawed, but we still needed free labor in this country, and here is a great loophole, all I have to do is label this person as a felon and now I can re-enslave them,” Rahr said. “And so, looking at how the criminal justice system was built and evolved and how it has been used to maintain social order, that’s invisible to people like me who grew up in an upper-class white community. It doesn’t affect me directly; I don’t see it, so I don’t know it’s there.”
Rahr admitted that when she became an officer in the 1970s, supervisors told her to “‘make as many arrests as you can, the more people you put in jail, the safer the community.’” History and research, she said, shows that path doesn’t drive down crime rates. In fact, in her experience, this is what is more likely to happen:
“As a patrol officer, I pull over a car and somebody has a warrant,” Rahr related. “That’s all I need; you have a warrant, I’m a cop, my job is to put you in jail. What they (police) don’t know is that you have a warrant because you missed a payment on your fines or court fees. You pleaded guilty, you did your time but now you pay these fines and fees. But you have a criminal record, your car is impounded, you don’t have a job, but you still have to pay these fines and fees.”
“We have,” added Rahr, “created a system that makes extremely difficult for somebody to ever extricate themselves.”
Mayor Mike Nelson assembled the Edmonds Equity and Social Justice Task Force last year to advise him on issues related to equity and justice. The group’s report, said the mayor, ”found problems in how we police and gives solutions to do a better job of supporting Black residents and other marginalized populations.”
In its January report, the task force laid out a series of recommendations:
- Ongoing training on equity and implicit bias, which the report says “is often subtle and not recognized.”
- Better assessment of police candidates to determine bias or openness to training prior to hire.
- Integrating social worker(s) into community policing, to relieve pressure on officers.
- Engaging community members so “that they matter and have a part in decisions.”
- Better accountability by the police and the city so people know what is happening.
- A continued role for the task force in developing future city policies and procedures.
Retired Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan agrees that “if we don’t police ourselves, that spells big trouble.” But he questioned some findings of the task force, adding: “Reading that report is like, we can’t do anything right. I don’t think that report was objective and that bothered me. It just seemed like there was an agenda before the task force got underway.”
“I know what we did for addressing complaints and concerns that were brought forward,” Compaan continued. “If there was anything that even had a hint of being a racially driven or minority-involved concern or complaint, we were all over it. But I can also tell you that the numbers of those that every came through the police department were very few and far between. It read as if this stuff was just rampant in the agency.”
In a March interview with My Edmonds News, Mayor Nelson said, “It is clear we have a problem everywhere. We have this systemic issue. 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 (task force members) are saying these are some things you should try, what is the harm in doing that?”
Task force members wrote that ensuring change means that equity and social justice goals must be “hard-wired” into the civic culture of Edmonds, and not just in the police department. Achieving success, the report said, means creating a lasting equity team; a commitment from the mayor, city douncil and senior police leaders; and establishing annual goals and conducting a yearly audit of how police and other city departments meet those goals.
What other police departments are doing
As part of “hard wiring” change in issues related to bias, equity, racism, social justice and policing, a number of police departments locally and nationally are refocusing what they do and how they do it.
Bothell establishes a civilian-police team
Bothell is one of them. With a population of 45,000, it’s close to Edmonds’ size of 42,000 residents.
With 52 commissioned officers, Bothell’s force is slightly less than Edmonds, which has 58 officers. In 2017, Bothell, Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Kenmore and Kirkland partnered to launch the RADAR program.
RADAR stands for Response Awareness, De-escalation And Referral. It’s designed to serve the rights and needs of people with behavioral health and developmental disabilities. Bothell RADAR coordinator Cam Johnson told My Edmonds News, “We love it; the police officers love it… they appreciate and welcome having a mental health professional be able to respond.”
The Bothell RADAR teams consist of a professional mental health “navigator” and an officer. The team works to de-escalate potential use-of-force situations with vulnerable people and connect them to services they need. Last year, the teams met with 126 people; 37% had behavioral issues; 9% were homeless, 3% were veterans.
Said Johnson: “A team, the two working together, have a real chance of working out something and making a real difference in someone’s life.”
Olympia sends ‘crisis responders’ instead of police
With a population of 52,000, Olympia is larger than Edmonds. It has 70 commissioned officers, compared to Edmonds’ 58.
In 2019, Olympia started sending civilian “crisis responders” instead of police to non-violent incidents involving a person with mental illness, addiction or homelessness. The idea: Let the crisis respondersdefuse the situation and connect people to medical or social services help. There are six behavioral health experts with the team. They wear shirts with the unit’s logo and carry police radios if they need help but are not officers.
The Marshall Project, a nationally recognized non-partisan, non-profit media organization focusing its reporting on the U.S. criminal justice system, studied the Olympia model. It concluded that “…an alternative crisis team like Olympia’s seems like a straightforward place to start. Police respond to a wide range of problems, many of them relatively minor or involving someone having a psychotic episode or sleeping on the streets. Using civilian first responders instead, advocates of this approach say, keeps interactions from escalating into violence, and diverts people from jail and toward social services. It also frees up police resources to focus on more serious crime.”
One city cut down on traffic stops
Fayetteville, North Carolina, population 210,000, has stopped making traffic stops for broken taillights, equipment violations or expired tags. The Burlington (NC) Times-News profiled then-Police Chief Harold Medlock, who instituted the radical change in traffic stop procedures. Medlock told the paper he wanted to get police out of the habit of pulling people over unless it was “to protect the safety of others on the road.”
Instead, Medlock focused patrol officers on stopping drivers for speeding, stop sign or traffic light violations, DWI and reckless driving. From 2013-2016, stops for non-moving violations plummeted and the number of red light and speeding violations tripled in town, ‘USA Today’ reported. As well, the number of Black drivers stopped for so-called “investigation” dropped by 50%. Additionally, traffic deaths dropped, and Chief Medlock told the paper that: “Uses of force went down, injuries to citizens and officers went down, and complaints against officers went down.”
Edmonds’ future – Building trust, transparency and success
Acting Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett has told My Edmonds News that her career has taught her that transition and change is always difficult. But, she added that “the opportunities for evolution and transparency in law enforcement are real,” and she believes that Edmonds is well positioned to plan that future.
In reading the report from Mayor’s Task Force on Equity and Social Justice, Bennett said: “I think there is always room for improvement… we should never shy away from scrutiny.”
That scrutiny is just one part of building the future. Sue Rahr said success depends most of all on creating and sustaining a police and community partnership. Rahr pointed out that every big civil rights movement has had a partnership, not just one community, but every community joining in.
The U.S. Department of Justice echoes that. The Justice Department created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), to promote community partnerships, stating that “Effective partnerships between law enforcement and community stakeholders are essential to public safety, and it is important that government agencies, community groups, nonprofits, businesses, and private citizens all embrace public safety as a shared responsibility.”
As we continue series of articles on the future of policing in Edmonds, we will explore the following:
– Part 4: Police and social workers — who is on the new “front line”? We will examines Edmonds’ plans for human services department and social worker, and include more detail on Bothell’s RADAR program.
– Part 5: Searching (again) for a police chief.
— By Bob Throndsen