by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On November 18, leadership from Seattle's demographic advisory councils to the Seattle Police Department met with Community Outreach Commander, Captain John Hayes, at SPD's Education and Training Section Support Facility for a two-hour discussion and training session about critical incidents involving police officers and use of force. The training came just days before the November 24 announcement from Ferguson, which led to unrest in Missouri as well as in Seattle and other cities as protestors took to the streets in reaction to the decision by a Ferguson grand jury to not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen, Michael Brown.
I attended the meeting as a leader on the LGBTQ Advisory Council to SPD and can report that many different demographics were represented: from Filipino to Latino and African-American to Southeast Asian, the room was full. Attendees heard from Acting Captain Mike Teeter about SPD's new Use of Force FIT Response Unit, which is sent to investigate whenever an officer is involved in a scenario that could call into question the officer's use of force. In other words, Teeter and his team make the recommendation to SPD Chief Kathleen O'Toole, based on their investigation, if the officer's use of force was justified or not. Accountability is something O'Toole has said is important to any police department.
Part of the training we received was very effective. Captain Hayes separated attendees into three groups for an exercise in critical (or crisis) incident response. Each group watched a different video where a cop was involved in a shooting incident. Separately, each of our groups discussed what we saw, what we thought, scripted a message that we thought the department should make to the media and public, and then came together as one large group again and presented what we had put together. The purpose of the training, said Captain Hayes, was to provide each of the leaders in the room with knowledge about how information is disseminated from the department to the advisory councils after an incident occurs, and to discuss what information each of us thought was needed to take back to our constituents.
The three videos used in the training all consisted of footage that was not recorded in Seattle, due to the fact the department wanted to avoid the possible mistake of showing a video to someone who might know the individuals involved or who might be connected to the incident itself without the department's knowledge. I felt this showed a great deal of thought on their part. Imagine if you showed up to a training session and video from a police shooting that included a cousin or other family member, coworker, etc., was used. I think, in this way, Hayes made a great judgment call.
The first video showed a South Carolina state trooper involved in a shooting after the troopers stopped a car and the driver of the vehicle jumped out with an assault rifle and began to spray the police cruiser with bullets. One of the officers was injured, but did not die. The driver of the vehicle was killed.
This video was particularly interesting for two reasons: On the one hand, the man doing the shooting was a white male, and usually we see images of black males involved in firing at the police. Again, I think SPD made a good judgment call to show this video because it showed that criminals come from all races, communities and neighborhoods and that to suspect a person of criminal activity based on the color of their skin is not only morally and ethically wrong - it is just plain inaccurate. That inaccuracy could get an officer killed in the line of duty.
The second reason why the video, filmed from the dash cam of the police cruiser, was interesting is that the man immediately just opened fire. There was little the officers could do. They were faced with a very terrible situation of kill or be killed. So in this way, it changed the narrative from the cops being the criminal and the criminal being the victim. While this is sometimes not the case, there is overwhelming data that shows police are in danger when they do their jobs, and if they are not ready to act with use of force, when it is needed, they can be killed.
The second video contained footage taken from the dash cam of a white San Diego police officer's vehicle, in which he pulls up to a gas station and asks the driver of a truck, a black male, to get his license and registration. When the driver of the vehicle turned to retrieve the requested items, the cop opened fire, shooting the unarmed man who had the license in his hand. The man could be heard asking the officer, 'Why did you shoot me?' The officer, we learned, was fired after this incident and charges have been filed against him.
The third video we discussed was footage of an African American homeless man, who also used to be a former Crips gang member, come to the aid of a white police officer that was being attacked by a man high on PCP. The homeless man's actions saved the cop's life.
The perspective that was presented by each group made for respectful dialogue about the opinions that had been brought forth by some members of the community. For the most part, it seemed, people did not want to take the side of the criminal, perceived criminal, or police. Instead, mostly, everyone called for investigation, wanted more facts, and did not want to brand one or the other guilty or innocent until most of the facts were known. I think this shows tremendous progress because it was great to see my fellow demographic leaders looking at things from a position of fact checking, policy monitoring, and reasonable debate instead of heated arguments, chucking the facts and relying solely on the race of the people involved.
Whenever a tragedy happens, just like we saw in Ferguson, facts are often reported wrong or not at all, extreme opinions are broadcast on 24 hour news channels as if they are substantial when often they are not, and speculation is taken at face value when it should not be reported at all. This behavior leads to what happened in Seattle, Ferguson, Oakland and elsewhere whenever emotions run high. While it may be true that the November 18 meeting did little to stop the violence that occurred on Monday night in Seattle, I am hopeful that as we continue to train with SPD, we are able to bring more information and training back to our respective demographic communities that will start to change the way SPD does business and the way we respond to it.
Captain Hayes pointed out that violence is not the answer and that most cops never want to shoot anyone. It doesn't lead to anything good he said. Also, he said that whenever the police department is doing right by the citizens they are sworn to protect, if an officer is involved in a shooting, then the public will have confidence that the officer had no other choice. Sadly, at this time, that confidence does not yet exist for SPD.
But that is not to say we can't get there - or even try.
I appreciated the department's willingness to set up this type of training and, based on the comments I heard people make at the demographic meeting, everyone saw it as being effective as well.
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