On Wednesday night, November 13, in Beacon Hill's Asa Mercer Middle School, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, Assistant Seattle Police Chief Harry Bailey, and a few officers from the South Precinct sat in wooden chairs at the front of a cold auditorium and patiently listened to South End residents' typical neighborhood concerns.

Residents who live near the school complained of drug activity in the area, and 911 calls that have gone unanswered. An elderly Asian man in the front row, speaking softly in broken English, asked for help with gang activity around his business. And a woman from West Seattle (also part of the South Precinct) asked precinct commander Tom Byers if he would assign "school officers" to community centers next summer, as he did this year. It seemed most of the attendees got what they came for: a chance to meet police officials and sound off on neighborhood issues.

The focus on neighborhood issues would make sense at most meetings hosted by police, but this forum was supposed to be different. It was the first South Precinct quarterly meeting, a new program implemented by Mayor Greg Nickels as part of his far-reaching proposal to "reduce the potential for racial profiling." The subject of racial profiling, however, barely surfaced.

In his July proposal, the mayor came up with a multipronged strategy against racial profiling. Nickels didn't want to simply study the problem; his plan was meant to do something about it. The quarterly meetings, aimed to "improve police-community relations," were a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, when the subject of racial profiling actually came up at the South Precinct's inaugural meeting, white residents were clearly uncomfortable and police quickly changed the subject to other neighborhood issues.

At the hour-and-a-half-long South Precinct gathering, racial profiling came up just once: A black woman stood up to ask where the community's young people were, barraging police with stories of youth who had been harassed by cops. A white man in front of her, clearly uneasy with the woman's sharp words, cut her off, asking what the problem was with police. "Racial profiling," she said. "You're going to ask me where that's at? It's everywhere." Police responded by acknowledging they have "a lot of work to do with youth," saying they wanted to recruit kids for a youth advisory committee. Then the conversation was directed back to neighborhood issues like drug dealing.

It's no wonder the community forums have slipped away from their original intention. Due to poor advertising by the city, few people are attending the meetings. "For the amount of people who live in this area, this is pretty pathetic," one astute resident said, surveying the small crowd in the Asa Mercer auditorium. What's more pathetic is the city's lack of effort to draw more black residents and community leaders who have spoken out against racial profiling. Notice of the meetings was conspicuously absent from community newspapers in the South and East Precincts; announcements weren't distributed in languages other than English (dozens are spoken in the South End); and local branches of the Urban League and the NAACP weren't enlisted to get the word out. (Although one would hope black activists would be more on top of things, and take advantage of an opportunity to make a showing at the meetings.)

The People's Coalition for Justice (PCJ), a local lefty activist group, practically predicted the unproductive meetings. In July, the PCJ released the following statement on Nickels' ideas: "While we are excited about the emphasis on community input, we know that forums hosted by the Seattle Police Department will not encourage honest and open dialogue. Especially with communities of color, who have a historic distrust of the police." With the first round of meetings nearly over, PCJ leader Dustin Washington--whose group didn't get notice of the meetings--says he's not surprised at how things went. "If we all know the community distrusts the police, what makes you think the community is going to come to these forums?" Washington asks. "I don't think I would have gone, even if I knew about them."

The mayor's community meetings have a long way to go before they can affect racial profiling and the distrust it elicits. The cops need to engage groups that have influence in local minority communities before the next quarter's meetings, and they need to be ready to have a real discussion on racial profiling--not just NIMBY rant sessions that enhance community-police relations with the people who already trust the cops. "A lot of the people who showed up were the usual suspects. We're going to work harder at turning out regular folks," says Edsonya Charles, Nickels' senior policy adviser.

The East Precinct meeting (held a week earlier in a bright room at the Seattle Vocational Institute on South Jackson Street) echoed the South Precinct forum. It was another example of how these meetings will go until the cops and the mayor rethink their strategy. Fred Hill, the precinct captain, introduced himself and discussed some of the area's "hot spots." Half an hour into the forum, one black man finally asked Hill if he had "any ideas about racial profiling."

Without missing a beat, Hill said he'd fire any officer who was discriminating. But the man, who introduced himself as Reverend W. D. Patterson, wasn't satisfied. "Somebody's got to say something," he said. "The people who are being profiled are not here. You have one black man here, [and] the perspective you need is from black men." He wanted a real discussion about racial profiling, not a pat answer from the cops. And he certainly didn't want the answer that assistant chief Harry Bailey gave him a few minutes later: "We're getting bogged down in one subject, and we need to move on."


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