By Kathleen Taylor, executive director, and Shankar Narayan, legislative director
The video showing Seattle police officers kicking and yelling racial slurs at an individual of color who appeared to be offering no resistance is deeply disturbing.
The video is the subject of ongoing investigations, and it is, of course, important to protect the due process rights of the officers involved. But using racial slurs or threatening to harm someone because of his race or ethnicity is never acceptable under any circumstances. Police officers have great power to be the enforcement mechanism of our laws. Citizens and residents delegate that power to them. Which is why it is extremely disturbing to see that power being abused by those in whom so much trust is placed.
The epithets yelled by the officer in question were racist and wrong, plain and simple. This kind of behavior by police hurts trust between communities and those who police them, and that makes community policing much more difficult. Yet community policing based on that kind of trust is the only way we can get a handle on issues like panhandling and street crime – issues that have been the subject of high-profile, problematic laws in recent weeks and months. So this kind of incident has public safety ramifications that go well beyond the individuals involved.
In addition, this incident should make us think twice about enacting laws that are neutral on their face but invite abuse. For example, we have seen more and more how labeling an individual a gang member is used to justify taking away that individual’s due process rights. What happened in that video was wrong, no matter whether the individual involved was a gang member or not. Other examples of problematic measures include the recently enacted Arizona law that invites racial profiling, or the many overly broad gang laws that have been and continue to be proposed in Washington. Society must be vigilant when we enact these laws, because all it takes is for the wrong individual to be tasked with enforcing them, and we suddenly have selective enforcement by race.
What should happen now? First, given the expression of racial animus by the officer, the ACLU urges that this incident be investigated as a possible hate crime. If the facts show that this was a hate crime, then appropriate action should be taken against the perpetrators.
Second, we urge the OPA to look not only at the primary officer’s conduct but the conduct of other officers at the scene and the involvement – or lack of involvement – of the officers’ supervisors. The ACLU has concerns not only about the racial epithet heard on the tape, but also about the conduct of all the officers at the scene. The portion of the video that has been publicly aired shows what appears to be an officer gratuitously kicking the head of a person lying on the ground and then a second officer stomping on the person’s leg. We could not tell from the video whether there was any response or statement of concern about the incident by other officers. We hope there was.
Third, the ACLU calls upon the Seattle Police Department to improve de-escalation and anger management training for officers. By the time an incident reaches the point at which an officer is yelling racist epithets and abusing his power through use of violence, it’s too late. The city needs to stop this kind of behavior through better training, retraining and supervision. The last two police Office of Professional Accountability Auditor’s reports have called for more de-escalation training for officers, and it is time for the City to take these recommendations seriously.
This is an opportunity for our city to face the issue of racism in police enforcement head on, and ensure real accountability. We hope that our leaders won’t miss the chance.