On September 26, DeVitta Briscoe found herself inside Seattle City Hall, a guest of Mayor Ed Murray. The irony was not lost on her. There she was, the sister of a man killed by Seattle police in February, the mother of a teenager killed by another teenager in Tacoma during a 2010 gang fight. She sat in the back, several rows behind Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole. She wore white pants and a white shirt, had put on nice earrings and makeup for the event.
She looked excited in moments, and in other moments cynical and fatigued. She chatted and laughed with an old activist friend who'd come to the event with her as everyone waited for Murray to deliver his annual budget speech.
Five months earlier, after her brother's killing, Briscoe had been on the outside. She'd taken to the streets in highly charged protests in front of City Hall—rallying around a mock coffin that represented the victims of police violence, accusing the police of "terrorism." She stormed out of community meetings with police officers. O'Toole, for her part, turned down an invitation from Briscoe's family to attend a meeting about her brother's death.
"I was so mad," Briscoe remembered.
But for the mayor's speech, at least, the doors at City Hall had opened up to her, and she'd decided to step inside. "Now," Briscoe said, "there's a whole different outlook. The narrative is shifting because we keep pushing."
What DeVitta Briscoe is pushing for today is specific: a change to our state's outlier law on holding police accountable when they unjustly kill civilians. It's a push that grows from a number of strands of painful experience, not all of them directly connected to police violence, but all of them compelling her to work ceaselessly toward positive change. Many of the men in Briscoe's life have died from homicide—the leading cause of death for young African American men.
Her son, Donald McCaney, was gunned down in 2010 in a Tacoma alleyway by a fellow teen.
Nearly six years later, in February 2016, her brother Che Taylor was fatally shot by Seattle police in North Seattle
After her brother's death, her family became the face of a new citizen initiative—Initiative 873—that would remove extreme provisions from state law that discourage prosecutors from bringing homicide charges against police officers who unjustly kill. Right now, if a prosecutor wants to charge an officer with homicide, state law requires that prosecutor to prove the officer acted with "malice" and without a "good faith belief" in his or her mind at the time of the fatal shooting.
That means prosecutors are unable to prosecute or convict police officers, even when their conduct is egregious. There have been more than 213 killings by police officers in Washington State over the past decade, according to a Seattle Times analysis, but only one officer has ever faced homicide charges. Not one has been convicted. Most recently, Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson declined to file charges against police officers in Pasco who shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a Latino farmworker who had thrown rocks at them and then fled. "What happened wasn't right," Ferguson said in an interview. Not filing charges against those officers, he continued, was "the most difficult decision I've had to make in my professional life."
Ferguson now supports removing "malice" from the state law.
In recent months, Initiative 873 has racked up a slate of high-profile endorsements from other officials, including Seattle mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle Police Department. The campaign says it now has about 90,000 signatures, but it needs to submit 250,000 signatures to the state by the end of 2016 in order to qualify for next year's ballot. If they don't get there, they'll run a new initiative next year.
To reach that number, Briscoe has been crisscrossing the Puget Sound region, collecting signatures at stores, drawing on connections to friends and community leaders she's made since the death of her son.
At weekly meetings in the city's Central District hosted by Not This Time, a nonprofit founded by her brother, Andre Taylor, Briscoe has reported back to attendees on the best signature-gathering methods. The crowds at the meetings have grown week by week.
Briscoe's first foray into activism began after the death of her son, Donald McCaney, at the hands of his friend who is now in state prison. Both teenagers were 17 years old at the time.
"This is my life's work. Keeping young people alive and free," Briscoe explained over coffee inside a noisy, bustling Starbucks in Tacoma, where she lives with her daughter.
Her son was an aspiring filmmaker with a sunny disposition who had recently graduated with a 4.0 GPA from Camp Outlook, a high school equivalent camp for low-risk juvenile offenders. The camp closed last year due to funding cuts in the state budget.
"He came out of there with honors," Briscoe recalled, smiling wistfully. "But he came back to the same environment." She lamented the lack of community centers on the eastside of Tacoma, an area described by the Tacoma News Tribune editorial board, which endorsed a new community center proposal this year, as "fraught with its hard-luck history of gun violence and poverty."
McCaney did not come home on October 3, 2010. Out with friends near a 7-Eleven, a fight broke out between rival groups of youths.
"Witnesses told police two rival gangs were engaged in a fistfight in the alley when someone pulled out a gun and fired two shots into the air in an attempt to break up the fracas," the News Tribune reported.
After he was arrested, Briscoe came to know her son’s killer personally. She learned he had grown up without his father in his life, she said. The two teenagers were close friends who both ended up at the center of a rival gang fight, according to charging documents in the case. (Briscoe said her son was not a member of either gang.) The documents say Datrion Newton, the shooter, had pulled out a gun and fired at young men fighting with McCaney, inadvertently striking his own friend, and then chased after them.
Newton was "nothing but remorseful" in conversations with her, Briscoe remembered. Pierce County prosecutors noted, "The victim's mother, who is well acquainted with Defendant and has been visiting him at the jail, has told [the Detective]... that she has forgiven Defendant and does not want to see him incarcerated for the equivalent of a life term."
Newton was sentenced to 26 years in prison the following year. The sentence represented "the high end of the standard range," according to a prosecutor quoted by the News Tribune. Newton was charged as an adult because he was almost 18 years old. Documents show Newton and his grandmother arguing in statements to the court that his public defender was not providing adequate counsel.
"I didn't get a chance to speak to my son's killer [at the trial before he went to prison]," Briscoe said. "I was going to request that he receive the lower end of the sentencing range."
"Sometimes," she said, "even perpetrators can be victims."
After her son's death, the first thing Briscoe did was attend a seminar given by antiviolence educator Dr. Joseph Marshall, an award-winning author and activist and director of the group Alive & Free.
"I learned that violence was preventable," she said. "I wanted to figure out how I could be part of the solution and how I could turn my tragedy into action."
Briscoe has come to believe that both her son and his killer were victims of what she calls a "social disease"—a combination of easy access to firearms, trauma from institutional racism, gang culture, poverty, unemployment, and the absence of community services.
"There were things we could actually do reduce gun violence by looking at it through a public-health lens," Briscoe said, growing animated. "Every disease has risk factors. What can we do to reduce our risk ourselves?"
"I have to be a voice to counter a culture that says that a lot of this stuff is cool," she said. She laughs at herself—at the idea of trying to school the youngsters—before concluding darkly: "To me, it only leads to incarceration and death."
Soon after, Briscoe teamed up with police officers and gun-safety experts to talk about these issues in a panel discussion broadcast on Tacoma's public access channel. The event was organized by Melissa Cordeiro, the City of Tacoma's Gang Reduction Project coordinator. "She was very collaborative," Cordeiro said. "It's a long road that she's walking down to try to make change. To still keep pushing through and not throw in the towel—that's amazing." Cordeiro added: "She never once struck me as against police."
Briscoe went on to appear on billboards and bus ads and in an antiviolence TV commercial with another mother, Shalisa Hayes, who'd lost her son in another Tacoma shooting. In the three-minute commercial, titled "Lock & Unload," Briscoe talks about how "unnatural and unnerving" it is to lose one's son, how we use the words "widow" and "orphan" to mark certain familial losses but have no word for a mother who loses her child. The commercial concludes with a Tacoma police officer talking about responsible gun ownership. The campaign emphasized the dangers of using guns in conflict settings, and, given the proliferation of so many guns in the hands of at-risk youth, it focused on basic gun safety measures, including how to securely store firearms.
In the online world, Briscoe has been nicknamed a "Hood Pastor" by her friends on Facebook, where she dishes out sharp-tongued sermons about street crime and the criminal justice system in widely shared, sometimes controversial posts.
For example, she's argued in favor of so-called "snitching."
"To us it's a form of betrayal" she said in one post. "I get it, but I also personally know mothers who have laid their babies to rest with no one to come forward to bring their murderers to justice... Snitches tell on their co-defendant and testify in exchange for a lighter sentence. The motive is purely to gain something for themselves. A witness on the other hand has firsthand knowledge about the crime and can testify to what he/she witnessed. The motive of a witness is to do the right thing and personally have nothing to gain. It's a matter of principle. My sister Shalisa blames the streets for the skewed definition of a snitch."
She once addressed "all the hustlers out there posting incriminating pictures and videos on social media—hope to see you on World's Dumbest Criminal!"
And in a post this summer, she reflected, "Everybody wants to prove their worth in the streets but I've seen too many of the people I love and care about end up dying, getting hooked on dope or going to prison. 9 times out of 10 the weight of the burden falls on immediate family... That's enough for me to keep preaching about people getting bamboozled into jeopardizing their life and freedom just to make a name for themselves in the streets."
Her older brother, Che Taylor, died on February 21, 2016, during what police say was an attempt to arrest him in a North Seattle neighborhood. According to Seattle police, Taylor was carrying a gun in a holster on his hip—a violation of his felony status.
Taylor had been released from his 22-year prison sentence the previous year. He had served his time in state prisons for convictions of first-degree robbery, first-degree rape, unlawful possession of a firearm, a drug offense, and two counts of second-degree assault.
A dashcam video shows two officers, guns drawn, closing in on Taylor while he stands at the passenger side of a car parked on a residential street. The officers—Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller—said in statements they believe Taylor reached for a gun, though they have said they could not see the gun in the moments before they fired, having "lost sight of his right hip and his right hand." A firefighter said he found a holster on Taylor's body as he rendered first aid.
The officers say Taylor disobeyed commands, they feared for their lives, and they were justified in opening fire, shooting Taylor multiple times. "At that time, I was afraid for my life, Scott's life, and everybody else's life 'cause I didn't think that he was willing to go to prison," Spaulding said. "So I started shooting."
The Seattle Police Department's internal Force Review Board backed the officers up after an inquiry, concluding the shooting was "reasonable, necessary, and proportional under department policy."
Briscoe vigorously contests this version of events. She believes the officers did not give her brother clear orders or give him a chance to comply with those orders. She believes he was murdered.
President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends external investigations from outside agencies into fatal incidents like Taylor's. "In order to restore and maintain trust, this independence is crucial," the task force members wrote. The family has unsuccessfully petitioned for an independent investigation into Taylor's killing.
But Briscoe and another of her brothers, Andre Taylor, did not stop there. They began holding community meetings and turned their attention to Washington State's deadly force law—the one that makes it virtually impossible to prosecute officers for murder. Again, Briscoe was searching for a way to turn her experiences into tangible change.
By July, she was speaking at a press conference alongside Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, arm in arm with other families, announcing the filing of the statewide initiative to reform the law.
Briscoe drew on her connections in Tacoma to form an alliance with the Puyallup Tribe and with Native American families, including the family of Jacqueline Salyers, a young pregnant woman killed by Tacoma police in early 2016—justifiably, according to police and prosecutors, and unconscionably, according to her family. Briscoe had marched with the woman's family.
With the blessing of Rick Williams—the surviving brother of John T. Williams, the Native American woodcarver whose killing by police officer Ian Birk in 2010 led to federally mandated police reforms in Seattle—they named Initiative 873 after Williams, calling it the John T. Williams Bill.
Last month, Briscoe connected with the family of Andrew Law, a 36-year-old white man killed by Seattle police in 2014 in the Sodo neighborhood. Police said the shooting was justified and that Law refused commands to drop a replica handgun.
"Just because he was white, he didn't get more protection than my brother," Briscoe said, pointing out that police violence disproportionately impacts people of color, but it affects thousands of white people, too.
Since the filing of the initiative, Briscoe has gathered signatures outside gas stations, grocery stores, and casinos around Tacoma. "We are making history," she said.
"She gets thrown into this work," said Minty LongEarth, her longtime friend and a member of the Seattle Community Police Commission, as she watched Briscoe lead a demonstration outside City Hall on May 5. Briscoe's shirt was emblazoned with the words "Che's Life Matters."
"This is not a black problem," Briscoe said through a megaphone, addressing the issue of police killings, her words reverberating off the glass doors of City Hall and, across the street, Seattle police headquarters. "It is an American problem."
"Maybe this is what her path is," observed LongEarth. "She just rises up and does what she's got to do... She just tries to get through change. She's got more strength than I have."
Initiative 873 can be signed at the weekly Wednesday 6 p.m. meetings of Not This Time, the nonprofit founded by Andre Taylor.