By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Personal responsibility is the key to individual success” flashed on the screen. It’s early Friday morning, the 13 students fidgeted as they stood in a line across the back of the classroom.
Seattle Police Department (SPD) Officer Martin Welte, the instructor, asked the students to move to a spot relative to their belief in the statement, ranging from “complete agreement” on one end to “disagreement” on the other end. The students, new SPD officers and lateral transfers from other city police departments, had been on the job for three weeks. Although all wore the same navy-blue uniforms, each brought different life experiences to the classroom.
The rookie officers were about to learn about institutional racism, implicit bias, and bias mitigation from Welte, a 28-year veteran and the department’s Race and Social Justice coordinator.
Seattle is the first city in the nation to have a Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), established in 2005 under former mayor Greg Nickels, who wanted to learn about equity within the city government and with the communities it served. Per Nickels, the Office for Civil Rights created the initiative in a citywide effort to end institutionalized racism, mandating training for all city departments. Each succeeding mayor has renewed the commitment to the RSJI, addressing education, community development, health, environment, jobs, housing, and criminal justice.
SPD falls within the criminal justice component and participated in areas such as human resource and contract work, but did not actively involve its sworn officers until later.
Welte, already an SPD trainer, became the RSJI coordinator in 2007. He and his fellow trainers attended a program, Perspectives on Profiling, run by the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance. After customizing the program to fit SPD’s needs, Welte and his colleagues conducted the first training for the entire department. The interactive training was to raise SPD employees’ awareness on personal bias.
In 2012, after a series of high-profile confrontations between officers and minority citizens, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) opened a formal investigation into the SPD on the use of excess force. A visit by DOJ and negotiation on police reform ensued.
Welte said that DOJ gave an “attaboy” to the department on the training done under the initiative, which became so popular that other cities began to visit Seattle to learn from the city, especially on policing.
“We are better for it regardless of the reason for DOJ’s visit,” said Welte. He recalled prior police trainings were often conducted by expensive, outside consulting firms. In one such training, the instructors claimed they could “cure the officers of their racism.” The training was not well received. The SPD decided the message on this sensitive and serious topic is better delivered by one of its own.
Welte teaches monthly post-academy training to new officers on institutional and implicit bias over two days. On this Friday, the focus was on institutional racism.
Back in the classroom, the new officers considered the “personal responsibility” statement; some moved decisively, some hesitantly, to a spot along the line reflecting their feelings. Most congregated in the middle. All seemed a little unsure as if it were a trick question. Welte asked his students to explain their stands and led them in a discussion. The exercise, repeated for two more similar statements, was the prelude to showing the PBS documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”
Although the provocative three-episode series was produced in 2004, Welte said it is still relevant. “History often repeats itself,” he surmised. The entire police department went through the same training and saw the documentary, which explored the meaning of race, the origin of the idea, and its consequences.
Summaries of the episodes:
Episode 1 — “The Difference Between Us” examined an experiment conducted with a group of diverse high school students. The students sequenced and compared their own DNA. The surprising result was that the students were just as likely to match genetically with people from other races as their own. Race was invented, a social construct to further economic and political goals. Black, brown, or white are just skin colors. There is only one race — the human race.
Episode 2 — “The Story We Tell” exposed how bogus science was used historically to legitimize race, which was used to exclude for the benefit of American expansion. Race justified the forced relocation of Native Americans, the repatriation of Mexican Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the exclusion of Chinese Americans in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Race justified fear.
Episode 3 — “The House We Live In” looked at how our laws define and create race in our politics, economy, and culture to favor the “white race.” One need not to be a racist to benefit from a racist system. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, “To get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.” Color blindness won’t end racial inequality.
After each episode, Welte facilitated discussions. The diverse class spoke openly and shared thoughts about the film. Welte compared racism to a crack in the wall of a home with a faulty foundation. Cosmetic quick fixes wouldn’t alleviate the real issue, but it looked pretty. He said, “Equity meant having the same starting line for everyone, not further back for some, nor 30 yards ahead for others.”
He pointed out that people, consciously or unconsciously, sort themselves and others into groups by family, religion, or skin colors; the “in” and “out” groups. Personal biases toward groups outside of one’s comfort zone does not mean one is a racist. But how one handles these biases matters. He added, “Individual action matters. How one’s treated is more important than the outcome.”
The class met again the following week to learn about implicit bias and ways to mitigate it.
Welte reminded everyone that bias is a function of a normal brain, a human condition to have preferences. Navigating through the biases takes effort and determination.
Welte discussed three fundamentals to mitigate bias. The first was “being aware of what the city of Seattle wants from the SPD.”
He asked the class, “What is the job of a police officer?” There were many answers. In 2019, police work is no longer just responding to 911 calls. It is law enforcement, leadership, community service, and more. It is interacting with people. Welte urged the young officers to get out of their patrol cars to interact with the community when there’s no crisis afoot, and not wait around until there’s a problem.
“Appreciate the importance of procedural justice and police legitimacy” was another fundamental. Officers have little input in creating the laws but still are expected to enforce them. “There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,” Welte said. The police uniform implies authority but doesn’t always legitimize action. He described “peacocking” as a human dynamic to strut superiority. Officers are constantly modeling for the department, for the city, and for their own race. Fairness and due process in treatment of others promote legitimacy, which in turn promote safety, respect, and support from the community.
The last fundamental Welte shared with his students was “learn and assess the impact of individual and institutional explicit and implicit bias.” Welte brought up the term “schema,” a psychological term that describes the brain’s ability to quickly categorize information and relationship. It is based on personal experience. It is automatic.
One may prefer Pepsi over Coke or vice versa. The brain schematically processes information, whether it’s a soda, or a person. Welte gave examples of Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, who was considered too short to be a quarterback, and singer Susan Boyle who appeared frumpy and inarticulate to the judges for a talent show. Both became successful despite what others initially perceived.
The tool-kit Welte utilizes to mitigate bias include “time and space.” Giving oneself time and space, when feasible, allows the subconscious and reflexive to become conscious and intentional. Time also allows more facts to develop to reduce error.
Welte urged the officers to think about being able to articulate their reasons for action, and ask, “Why I am doing this?”
Another tool is “education and training” to build awareness. A clear and better understanding of the community the officers serve require learning about the surroundings. Get to know their “out” groups.
Welte stressed the importance of the last tool, LEED–Listen, Explain with Equity, and Dignity.
Will the training better prepare the officers? It is impossible to collect data to measure one’s emotion. The young officers appeared to be receptive to the training and ready to make a difference. Welte noted the millennials might be more open-minded. He also saw changes in his department. He is able to discuss “white privilege” with anyone in the department, while 8-10 years ago, the conversation might be different.
Welte is under the new Collaborative Policing Bureau, headed by Assistant Chief Adrian Diaz, who advocates relational policing, a collaboration between the community and the police.
Welte takes it one step further, using a mantra, “relational policing for transformational change.”
“Transactional training such as firearms and defense tactics are important, but training that transform people are even more so,” Welte said.
Whether the new officers were transformed or not, they left the class with a new awareness.
They can let their uniform set themselves apart, or be a part of the community. Their action matters.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.