Mayor Mike McGinn
Chief of Police John Diaz
Members of the Seattle City Council
Re: An Open Letter calling for a change in the mindset and training of the SPD
Dear leaders of the City of Seattle:
The tragic killing by a Seattle police officer of a Native American wood carver as he walked through his neighborhood is part of a string of disturbing incidents in which police officers used force in questionable circumstances.
The pattern of violence must stop. Seattle's leaders must step up to create some basic changes—a new set of approaches, expectations, and daily practices in the Seattle Police Department. Change is imperative to encourage improved decision-making by officers, more trust from community members, and safer communities for all Seattleites.
In a democracy, police officers are delegated great powers by the people they serve to enforce our laws. With that power comes great responsibility—including the responsibility to use force only when clearly necessary.
Too often, officers have overreacted or escalated incidents when the subject is an individual of color, disabled, homeless or, otherwise "different." We fear that the drive for so-called "civility" laws has created a mindset that our streets need to be rid of "undesirable" people. It sends a message to officers that some people are suspect because of their appearance and manner and should be removed from public view to make others "feel" safer.
This mindset must change. Partly it is a matter of training. Officers must be trained to understand that "appearing different" doesn't automatically make a person a safety risk. Officers must assess safety threats based on objective facts rather than outward appearance. And officers must learn and use effective de-escalation techniques to defuse tense situations without resorting to force.
Both the basic training provided by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and the training provided specifically to Seattle police recruits must be reevaluated to ensure that officers learn the skills needed to protect all of the people of Seattle.
But for good training to be effective, it must be continuously reinforced. From the Chief of Police to the sergeants on the street, the message must be clear that that officers are sworn to fight crime, not people.
Mr. Williams was a brother, a son, a friend to many, a talented artist, and a valued human being--far more than just "a homeless man." The police officer is also a valued human being--and one given the difficult and dangerous responsibility of judging when to use deadly force to keep us all safe.
The Seattle Police Department needs the leadership, de-escalation training, and crosscultural skills that will help minimize the chances of fatal street encounters. A change in approach will improve public safety for all in our community and make the police department more effective in carrying out its important mission.