Never mind Chinese President Xi Jinpng—America's own Department of Justice is in town. This afternoon, Attorney General Loretta Lynch will be at the Northwest African American Museum to talk about police reform. What she'll say is anybody's guess.
Hopefully, though, Lynch will acknowledge in some way an urgent message to the federal government from Seattle's Community Police Commission (CPC). The 15-member body shared its concerns yesterday in a City Hall meeting with DOJ civil rights division head Vanita Gupta, and they boiled down to this: We have been ignored. We have been taken for granted. And the longer that continues, the more likely it is the community voices represented on the commission will disengage from the official reform process and take to the streets.
"It was the community’s voice that brought the DOJ here [to investigate the Seattle Police Department]," said Aaron Williams, a longtime commissioner and senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. "And for them to say that the CPC doesn’t have a place at the table is really saying that the community doesn’t have a place at the table. So I think it’s important that if we‘re going to be a model for other cities, that this kind of mentality has to be dealt with. The community is the victim and they need to be heard."
"I've been surprised to see the condescension that exists, and it's very open," said Minty LongEarth. "The community is not at the table."
The commissioners, who are unpaid volunteers, already unanimously threatened to resign once, in 2013, after they were denied a say in the development of new use-of-force policies by federal monitor Merrick Bobb. According to policing expert Sam Walker, Bobb relented, making it "the first time in the history of the American police where community representatives had a formal voice in the making of police policy."
Also that year, the CPC asked to be made an official legal party to the consent decree. Federal judge James Robart denied their request, relegating them to amicus status, which prevents the commission from initiating a formal request to the judge.
This summer, as the CPC bypassed months of mayoral delays and took its accountability proposals directly to the city council, the judge all but accused them of seeking to grab power.
While the commissioners stopped short of threats to resign en masse this time, they are sending out an unmistakable warning message.
“Historically, [making police accountable] has not been done in a courtroom," said Enrique Gonzalez, who works with El Centro de la Raza and volunteers his time as a commissioner. "It’s been done on the streets, it’s been done protesting."
"We could all be working on these issues in other capacities," said CPC co-chair Lisa Daugaard. "If we do this to no avail, then it won't be very obvious why people should sign on to this style of work."
Commissioners haven't been sure what they were allowed and not allowed to do, said Kevin Stuckey, the police officer who represents the Seattle Police Officers Guild on the commission. "I consider myself blessed to be a part of something that speaks for people," he said. "We don't want to be the checkbox... It's going to be important that you say, 'Okay, this is your defined role.' There should be no guesswork involved."
"There has to be some real skin in the game," added Melinda Giovengo, the Executive Director of YouthCare, "or stake set out by the decree itself that gives the CPC a formal role in the process. Not just as a nice head nod or a token system."
The DOJ's Gupta, who came from the ACLU and has been lauded as a trailblazer for her work investigating the Ferguson police department, listened silently as the commissioners unloaded for nearly 45 minutes, then told them: "Your role is critically important and to the extent that you're feeling like we need to hear that voice and the work that you're doing more effectively and more authentically—that's something we'll be discussing."
Then Gupta had to go. She did not take take questions from the press.