By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Earlier this month, Seattle Police Department (SPD) head, Chief Carmen Best, and SPD Assistant Chief of the Criminal Investigations Bureau, Deanna Nollette, sat down to an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly to talk about some pressing concerns that the Asian/Pacific Islander (API) community has about public safety and more.
On July 23, 2015, International District Emergency Center Director and Founder Donnie Chin died following an early morning shooting. Police believe he drove into the crossfire of a shootout between rival gangs, an accidental victim. It was a loss that shook the local community and the city, as Chin was a beloved community leader and self-appointed protector of Seattle’s International District (ID).
In the more than four years that have passed, updates on this case have been minor—a fact that continues to frustrate community members.
“The case remains open—and will remain open until we clear it with an arrest,” said Nollette. “But at this point, we don’t have significant updates on the investigation.”
Nollette, aware of the community’s impatience and frustration, did offer some hope.
“I will say that the department just solved a 52-year-old homicide which is a reflection of the fact that we’re not going to forget Donnie, and we’re not going to stop working on the case.”
The 52-year-old murder case Nollette was referring to was, the murder of Susan Galvin in 1967 at the Seattle Center, was solved using genetic genealogy— reportedly the oldest ever using this method.
In regard to solving Chin’s murder, Nollette said they are keeping the Chin family apprised, particularly keeping in touch with Constance Chin-Magorty, Donnie’s sister.
In 2018, SPD moved Little Saigon into the West Precinct.
In years prior, Little Saigon was part of the East Precinct because of how Interstate 5 runs down the middle, separating it from the ID—despite Little Saigon having historical ties and common safety needs as the ID. At the time, the CID Public Safety Task Force argued that joining Little Saigon with the ID under the same precinct would improve communication, reduce duplicated law enforcement efforts and strategies, and improve officer relationships with community members.
“It was a huge undertaking,” said Best, “and we’ve seen positive change.” The change necessitated that SPD restructure maps, their dispatching, as well as account for different equipment and additional people.
SPD currently prioritizes a public safety model that involves not only in enforcement, but also heavily emphasizes community engagement—building community trust, approval, and respect.
“We’re making sure that neighborhood (the ID) is as safe as possible,” said Best.
“We do a block watch and train a number of businesses. They had this event for cops to play pinball with the community. There’s coffee with a cop—we’ve done almost a dozen of those. We’ve done a number of community walks. I did some with the mayor. There’s the Collaborative Policing Bureau out walking and engaging. … We just want to make sure people know we are present and engaged in the community.”
Best pointed out that Block Watch 101 is training that they do with community members in several languages, as ID residents are often non-English-speaking. “We want to work more intentionality with people,” she says.
SPD partnered with the Wing Luke Museum, in which about 40 officers over time met with ID community members at the museum to exchange information as well as for the officers to learn more about the history of the neighborhood. SPD is also continuing to work with SCIDpda and CID Public Safety Coordinator Sonny Nguyen to boost public safety in the ID.
Massage parlor busts
In March of this year, SPD raided 12 massage parlors (seven of which were in the ID) as part of a human trafficking and money-laundering investigation. Northwest Asian Weekly reported that the 26 female victims from the bust were Chinese, many of whom were new arrivals who spoke little to no English.
“We’ve rescued dozens of women who were trafficked—exploited in those circumstances,” said Best. “We provided them with after care, if you will, helping them to get out of that lifestyle and provided human services to them.”
Best said that many of the women were able to get T visas, a type of visa that allows victims of human trafficking and their immediate family members to stay and work in the United States temporarily, typically if they agree to help law enforcement in investigations or persecution of crimes.
“We’ve done a number of operations,” added Nollette. “Unfortunately, it’s been an ongoing emphasis [in the ID area for us].” Nollette said it’s an ongoing effort because new sex trafficking operations tend to spring up and replace ones that have been busted.
According to a report, “Washington State Task Force Against the Trafficking of Persons,” human trafficking—also known as modern slavery—is especially prevalent in our state due to factors that include our international border with Canada, the abundance of ports, vast rural areas, and dependency on agricultural workers.
According to seattle.gov, SPD currently has 1,444 sworn officers. Best said that API representation (as well as POC representation) on the force is improving, but she acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done.
In total, 111 officers are API, which is about 7.7 percent of the force. This is less than half of Seattle’s overall population of APIs, which is 15 percent (2010 U.S. Census data).
Best said that one of the five assistant police chiefs is API—that’s SPD Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak. There are two API captains, six lieutenants, 12 sergeants, 77 officers, four student officers, and nine recruits. Best said that in terms of recruiting, it is optimistic, as this year there were 43 recruits in total—meaning about 21 percent of recruits were API.
“We want to do better,” she said. “We can always do more.”
Best said that barrier in recruiting APIs are too different from barriers faced by SPD in other communities. Part of it is representation—or lack thereof.
“I know people need to see police officers who look like themselves,” said Best.
“We are making sure we’re doing as much recruitment as we can, so that our communities can see people who look like them.”
Recruitment and retention
The nation is experiencing a growing police officer shortage—some call it a national crisis. Seattle, with its low unemployment rate, is also feeling this pain point. As the population continues to increase, the number of officers sworn in each year is not keeping pace, according to a new SPD Recruitment & Retention Workgroup report, released Aug. 30. The report also stated that there were significantly higher rates of separation by fully-trained officers— officers voluntarily leaving SPD—in 2018 compared to 2012-2017 data. The report stated that, where information was recorded, 70 percent of officers who resigned from SPD actually left to join another force—typically one within 100 miles of Seattle.
“These officers were leaving SPD, but not leaving policing or even the region,” the report stated.
On July 15, Best spoke about staffing issues at a press conference and, in a bold move—named the lack of support from Seattle City Council as a stated reason SPD officers are leaving.
“I don’t need to see another survey or another exit interview to know that one of the issues is that we really need the support of our public officials,” she said at the press conference. “We need them to stand up for the work that the officers and the men and women have been doing in this organization. We are losing good people and we know that this is because they feel like they’re not supported by public officials.”
While Best’s comments were well-received by many, particularly those within SPD, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said she disagreed with SPD’s characterization of the issue, as reported by Q13 Fox at the time. Gonzalez and fellow councilmember Lisa Herbold were reported as saying that the heart of the issue isn’t money but rhetoric—that the expectation was for Best to address morale concerns in SPD with the current tools available to her.
Now that months have passed in between that press conference and today, when asked to expand on the comments she made, Best did not deviate from what she previously stated.
“When officers leave this organization, a lack of support from the city council is stated as one of the reasons that they leave,” Best said. “These are not my words, these are the words of my officers. This is how they feel, and they don’t feel support from our city council. For example, we don’t have a facility and building for officers. That officers interpret this as a lack of support. Officers were also working on wages four years old. They were buying things in 2018 with 2014 salaries. These types of things make officers feel unsupported. These are the huge challenges.”
In November 2018, Seattle City Council did vote 8–1 to approve SPD’s first pay hike in more than four years.
“Our officers want to be a part of the communities they are policing,” said Best.
“We know there’s always concern about accountability and all those things —we will hold officers accountable. At the same time, everyone wants to be able to be recognized for the good work they do. We need to support our officers.”
Other challenges in recruiting and retention include the unemployment rate —talented people are going into other industries because of the availability of jobs and competitive pay—as well as background checks. Marijuana is legal in Washington state but not federally, which is a concern for some people, said Best.
Nollette also pointed to public scrutiny and distrust of police officers being a deterrent to attracting and retaining talent. She said that many who want to serve their community might join the fire department, for instance, as there is far less public scrutiny there.
“I love this job and I think it’s important,” said Best. “What is really important is that we provide fair and ethical police service to everyone. I feel very confident that the folks I have put in place are striving to do their best every day. Our community engagement has reached a high. I think the level of professionalism is great. Our people are absolutely engaged. And I believe that we are one of the most humane police forces in the entire country.”
Best said that every officer has been trained on race and that SPD does a lot of training in implicit bias. She said the training has been vetted and tested— and that they take lessons and iteratively apply them to future training, so that it continues to be fine-tuned.
“This job is one that is really a calling. It’s a vocation. There’s so much that you get from here that is rewarding. It has everything to do with giving back. There’s not a day that I don’t feel like I’ve done something meaningful for someone. There is no other job like this one.”
Stacy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.