Jenine Grey speaking this morning.
  • Jenine Grey speaking this morning.
Roughly 20 Native American and civil rights leaders from around the region assembled this morning to demand major changes in training and protocol at the Seattle Police Department. Their demands are a response to the August 31 death of John T. Williams, a Native American wood carver shot by an officer while holding his carving knife.

“We are holding the Seattle Police Department and the City of Seattle accountable for this death,” said Jenine Grey, on behalf of the Chief Seattle Club. “Many of our people spend time practicing their art on street corners and in parks… unfortunately, many of our people have personally experienced both undue harassment and excessive force at the hands of the Seattle Police Department.” Grey is a member of the Tlingit tribe and Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club, which offers food, shelter, showers, and healthcare to Native Americans. She noted that in Seattle, it’s not uncommon to see a Native person with carving tools in public areas.

The club issued a list of demands for SPD as they begin their investigation, review, and inquest into the death of Williams:

—The inquest should include one person (minimum) from the Native community.

—That Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz communicate directly with the Native community during the process.

—That SPD apologize for dehumanizing and denigrating Williams (responding to statements made during a police press briefing on August 31, in which the group alleges that Williams was identified by his criminal history but not his name).

—That SPD immediately institute training for all police officers in the appropriate use of force, cultural sensitivity and awareness, and appropriate care in dealing with persons with mental and physical disabilities. “It is more than obvious that this training is either grossly deficient or blatantly ignored,” Grey said.

SPD responded to a few of these demands after the press conference. “The inquest is not our process, that’s the role of the King County Prosecutor’s Office,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for SPD, speaking to the group's first demand. “We have a thorough departmental review that we undertake, and it’s in the beginning stages now. There’s going to be an in-depth process to discover the facts and determine what happened.”

And race and social justice training specifically addressing racial profiling was implemented within the department this year. “It’s mandatory training for everyone here, now,” explained Whitcomb, although he didn't know if Officer Ian Birk had attended the training.

Others had demands for SPD as well. Pamela Masterman-Stearns, chair of the City of Seattle Native American Employees network, wanted to know how the department is complying with the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), which has the citywide goal to end institutionalized racism and race-based disparities in City government. “This is a civil rights issue,” said Masterman-Sterns. “Are we safe when walking the streets? Who’s protecting us? The goal [of the RSJI] is to eliminate institutional racism, and that involves cultural training… we want justice, and there can be no justice without accountability.”

Whitcomb says many of the group’s demands align with departmental goals. “Chief Diaz is personally interested in the types of training we’ve received and is currently reviewing them to ensure their adequacy,” says Whitcomb.

But assurances by SPD may not be enough. The people assembled this morning want to see significant changes to the department and the review process.

The inquest process in King County rarely leads to any form of justice whatsoever,” said James Bible, chapter president of the NAACP. “The families are rarely represented. The shootings are almost always deemed justified. There hasn’t been a single use of force complaint in the past couple of years that the SPD hasn’t deemed sustained—as in it never really happened.”

Above all, the people gathered this morning shared their grief at the loss of Williams. “I ran a picture framing shop on Broadway, and he’d come in and ask for scraps of wood,” recalled Randy Lewis, a spokesman for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. “The only thing that could be threatened by John was a piece of yellow cedar, maybe... We strongly condemn the use of lethal force. We are not a people of a romantic past or an irrelevant present. And we are not going to allow this death to be swept under the rug.”