It was standing room only at yesterday's City Council civil rights committee hearing. The majority of people were Native Americans, who had come to demand justice for last month's fatal police shooting of John T. Williams, a partially deaf local carver whose family had lived in Seattle for six generations.

And city council member Bruce Harrell, the only non-white council member and chair of the committee, didn't disappoint.

"I want to take a good hard look at the policies," Harrell said. "I want to dig deep to see where training can be improved ... a person died. That's enough [to review the policies]."


The committee's main goals, as identified by council member Bruce Harrell: to figure out whether the use of lethal force on Williams was appropriate or justifiable, and whether or not institutional racism may have been involved, as several commenters and committee guests alleged.

But the majority of the conversation revolved around training practices and cultural sensitivity among the rank-and-file of the Seattle Police Department. (The officer involved in the shooting, Ian Birk, had only been a member of the police force for two years.)

"With a population that is 30 percent Native American, 25 percent of its [Seattle's] homeless population are Native Americans, how many Native Americans are on the Seattle police force [as beat officers]?" asked Millie Kennedy of the Northwest Justice Project during the public comment period. (Answer, according to testimony: 19 out of 1,250. We're checking this with the SPD.)

"I really believe if you're going to have cultural competency among the police force, you need Native Americans on the police force."

Both Harrell and longtime police watchdog council member Nick Licata called on the SPD to release descriptions of their training practices to the public. Licata also called for more de-escalation training and for requiring annual rather than biennial racial-profiling classes, whereas other officials at the meeting—Native American State Senator Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent) and council members Mike O'Brien and Richard Conlin—declined to comment.

One panel member, Julie Nelson of the city's Office of Civil Rights, was not so well received—a couple of audience members repeatedly booed and heckled her throughout the proceedings, calling her incompetent and a liar as she talked about the importance of removing institutionalized racism from the city.

Earlier yesterday morning Police Chief John Diaz announced that he would restructure the department to prevent further incidents, including the appointment of nine new commanders, more Tasers issued to officers, and a review of de-escalation training procedures, despite his earlier assertion to PubliCola that de-escalation did not necessarily apply to this case.

Representatives from the Chief Seattle Club, City of Seattle Native American Employees (CANOES), the Suquamish tribe, the Puyallup Tribe, United Indians, the Washington Indian Civil Rights Commission, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, and the Seattle Human Rights Commission all participated in a panel discussion of the role of civil rights in the shooting and in the operation of the SPD.

CANOES and the Human Rights Commission each presented a list of recommendations to the City Council to increase police sensitivity to community issues, both involving the goals of the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the city's effort to end racial inequity in city functions.

CANOES recommended that the SPD reinstate "home rule" (requiring SPD officers to live in the city of Seattle), requiring patrol officers to complete 16 hours of RSJI training each year, and integrating the RSJI into hiring and evaluating police recruits. It also asked the City to conduct an independent investigation into the shooting, reinstate the position of a tribal liaison, and review the impact of the city's civility laws on disadvantaged populations and community relations.

"We believe that officers ought to study the history of why communities of color are over-policed and under-served," CANOES president Pamela Masterman-Stearns said to thunderous applause. "SPD should stop treating these incidents like a mistake, but rather analyze them as a result of a system that historically has targeted communities of color."

Harrell said he intended to use the CANOES recommendations as a template for the RSJI work plan.

The Human Rights Commission made similar suggestions, including the establishment of an independent review board for the shooting with Native American and disabled representatives and adding citizen observers to police review board meetings.

Harrell's chances for reelection in 2011 will improve significantly if he successfully designs and implements a plan to improve relations between the SPD and the Native American community. Harrell suffers from a lack of name recognition. Despite being on the council for three years, 82 percent of his constituents have no opinion of him, according to a survey from last month.
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