With Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole well into her second year on the job, the department is taking a close look at how it handles protests. Over the past year, the force has come under intense criticism from activists, public defense lawyers, and officials for taking a heavy-handed approach to Black Lives Matter and May Day protests—Council Member Bruce Harrell called the flying-off-a-bike tackle of one May Day protester "idiotic"—while spending millions of dollars deploying its officers.
Last year, O'Toole rejected a call from civilian commissioners for a federally-mediated dialogue between protesters and police. Instead, she hired a Los Angeles based consulting firm—the Center for Policing Equity—to study the department's "crowd management" practices and make recommendations for change.
The Center will be in town today, speaking with a group of community activists and protesters hand-picked by the Seattle police.
Among those invited to a 1 p.m. meeting at Seattle Municipal Tower Room 1660 are Reverend Harriett Walden, Reverend Aaron Williams, Seattle-King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson, Urban League President Pamela Banks, Community Police Commissioner Lisa Daugaard, the Public Defender Association's Patricia Sully, El Centro de la Raza head Estela Ortega, and the ACLU's Jennifer Shaw, according to an e-mail obtained through a public records request.
Local activist and artist Chad Goller-Sojourner, who organized the golf club protest walk in solidarity with William Wingate, told me he was invited to a 9 a.m. focus group meeting and was told he could bring one other person.
Missing from this lineup, however, are some of the key organizers who say they were targeted for arrest or surveillance by police over the past year. In addition, the meetings are not open to the wider public—including people with day jobs who come out to the occasional protest and would be unlikely to be able to attend Friday midday meetings.
Police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb said the meetings are for "narrow focus groups to have very specific conversations," and he had no response when asked how anyone who wasn't invited could make themselves heard in the process.
Jorge Torres, who Seattle police specifically identified as a Black Lives Matter protest leader and singled out for arrest—"get him for pedestrian interference or something along those lines," they said—told me he hadn't been invited and didn't know about the meetings. He works at a childcare nonprofit.
Nor was Jesse Hagopian, the Garfield High School teacher pepper-sprayed on Martin Luther King Day last year. "I guess they don't like me very much," he said.
Nikkita Oliver, another local organizer and teacher who sometimes acts as a National Lawyers Guild observer, was not invited either. But she's been trying to figure out what's going on. She pointed out that these kinds of invite-only meetings "often lead to continued gate keeping."
Late last night, Brian Maxey, the department's chief operating officer, said in a text message that the goal of the focus groups is to "develop strategies to effectively reach out to the broader community. We want to hear from everyone, but need the dialogue to be constructive. We have tried open public forums (as has the Community Police Commission) that have proven completely counterproductive."
He said the department is considering setting up an anonymized e-mail server that would allow protesters to transmit words and multimedia.