By Andrew Kim
Northwest Asian Weekly
Police brutality, misconduct, and shootings have dominated news headlines in the past few years and Seattle has been no exception.
In 2012, the shooting death of John Williams, a Native American woodcarver, and other serious incidents involving the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and people of color eventually led to a settlement between the City of Seattle and the U.S. Department of Justice. As part of this settlement, the City of Seattle agreed to implement sustainable reform within the SPD, including but not limited to training revisions, increased accountability, and a civilian oversight board, the Community Policy Commission (CPC).
Although many other cities nationwide are under similar consent decrees with the federal government to reform their police departments, Seattle is the only one with a civilian commission.
The CPC is a holding meeting on April 13 to formulate recommendations to Seattle police. Its purpose is “to give community members a voice and stake in police reform efforts.” The CPC has identified one way to reduce police brutality against people of color: a police force whose ranks within SPD mirror the ethnic makeup of the community it serves. Increasing the racial diversity of the SPD is particularly relevant right now in light of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s goal of increasing the total number of police officers by 200. In his 2016 state of the city address, the mayor doubled down on his original commitment of adding 100 new officers… “for an overall goal of 200 net officers.” In addition, the newly appointed chief, Kathleen O’Toole, continues to fill out her command staff.
SPD BREAKDOWN BY RACE
The racial makeup of the SPD as it compares to the population of Seattle and the applicant pool is shown in the graph on the right. Although Asians are by far the largest ethnic minority group in Seattle, they are noticeably absent from the command staff and police force.
The figures were taken from a recent CPC Report (“An Assessment of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Engagement: Through Recruitment, Hiring, and Training”) that studied how the SPD recruited, hired, and trained police officers.
Although the report demonstrates that the “SPD is more diverse in its racial and ethnic composition compared to law enforcement agencies in other cities,” the SPD is significantly more white than the population of Seattle. In addition, the report also highlights the “significant number of applicants from racial/ethnic communities… that drop out early in the application process.” In general, non-white applicants do not become police officers at the same rate as those applicants who are white. Ethnic applicants make up 44 percent of the applicant pool, but comprise only 26 percent of the SPD. Asians are proportionately the least represented. Asians make up 13 percent of the population of Seattle and 10 percent of the applicant pool, but only 7 percent of the department is Asian.
Detective Carrie McNally, a member of the Seattle police recruiting team, noted that the department was “well aware of the need to recruit police officers from diverse backgrounds.” She is working on building relationships with the community, including strategies to have Asian police officers attend recruiting events, and working directly with the CPC to gather feedback from the community.
In addition, Mike Fields, Seattle police human resources director, maintains that the “department continues to work to hire officers that reflect the cultures and communities within our city. We are aware that the number of Asian American police officers is not representative of Seattle’s population and we are constantly reviewing our outreach practices to ensure robust recruitment in all our communities.”
Asians are also noticeably absent from Chief O’Toole’s command staff.
Sarah Baker, Seattle Chapter President of the Japanese American Citizens League, recently sent an open letter to O’Toole regarding the lack of API representation on her command staff. In response, O’Toole replied that she is “absolutely committed to a police service that reflects the community we serve” and although she has not hired an API for her command staff as of yet (four white, two Black), she has hired APIs for other management positions.
A NEGATIVE VIEW ON POLICING?
There are a number of reasons why API representation in the Seattle Police Department may be low and the CPC report discusses a few of these possibilities, including “the challenge of negative views about policing and police careers within many ethnic communities.” However, APIs make up 4 percent of the active duty members of the armed forces, a similar type of career, while making up 5.4 percent of the overall population in the United States, according to the Department of Defense. This suggests that there may be other factors, rather than API sentiment towards policing careers, that contribute to the lower than expected API representation of police officers. Determining those root causes and addressing them will be the central topic during the April 13 CPC meeting.
McNally believes that “recruitment has to start early, during school” because becoming a police officer is a commitment and a “long process that takes several months.” She believes that many candidates become discouraged and take other jobs, which is why she is working on several internship programs and focusing on recruiting efforts at schools to get students thinking about a career in law enforcement.
The issue of API representation in the police force is top of mind for Al Sugiyama, a former executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA) and an active community member of the International District. He expressed his concern for the “high risk of violent crimes in the International District and the lack of timely response by the Seattle Police Department to incidents.” In addition, Sugiyama believes that “police officers do not understand the many nuanced issues in the International District, and that cultural and language barriers remain between the police officers and the community it has sworn to serve.”
The CPC continues to have community meetings and contact community-based organizations to “facilitate the conversations that we need to have — [The CPC] is the community’s voice in the police reform process. It’s literally getting the community voice at the table for policy reform, training, doing these assessments, making sure silent voices that are not usually at the table are at the table.”
Andrew Kim can be reached at email@example.com.