Image: Jesse Lenz

Even now, three years after the incident, Estela Ortega won’t repeat the words. “For the Latino community, this all goes back to the incident that happened with the young Latino that was kicked in the head and…the, uh, offensive language that was used.” Ortega, executive director of the Beacon Hill community center El Centro de la Raza, won’t say the words because they hurt, but she doesn’t have to, because for a while they were the unofficial slogan of a police department run amok: “I’m going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey.”

She’s referring to the night in April 2010 when Seattle police officer Shandy Cobane berated and kicked 21-year-old Martin Monetti, whom Cobane detained while investigating an armed robbery in South Lake Union. A freelance photographer caught the whole thing on tape, the video went viral, and the ensuing firestorm was partly responsible for the Department of Justice’s 10-month investigation of SPD’s use of force in 2011. (Monetti wasn’t charged in the robbery and later sued the department, settling out of court for $150,000.) 

For many in Seattle’s minority communities, the incident—and Cobane’s racially charged threat, in particular—confirmed their belief that the city’s police didn’t understand or particularly care for the diverse communities they serve. Yet in a strange, roundabout way, the Epithet Heard ’Round YouTube is fueling SPD’s latest effort to diversify. And this July, when this year’s class of recruits take the entrance exam, we’ll know if it’s working.

In December 2011, the DOJ completed its investigation and made public, among other things, its “serious concerns” about the department’s allegedly discriminatory practices. Three months later, mayor Mike McGinn launched a package of 20 initiatives—the so-called 20/20 plan—meant to address the DOJ’s concerns. Among those initiatives: Do a better job of recruiting minorities.

To that end McGinn recruited Kip Tokuda, a former member of the Washington state House of Representatives and longtime resident of Central and Southeast Seattle, to gather data on the demographics of Seattle’s officers and interview members of the department and community advocates. And while he found that SPD was whiter than the general Seattle population, that had as much to do with its relationships with and credibility within communities of color as it did with its recruiting practices. Put another way: It’s hard to recruit minorities if minorities don’t want to work for you.

McGinn announced the new recruitment plan born out of Tokuda’s work at El Centro de la Raza in May. Some of its more eye-catching items were a softening of the department’s stance on marijuana use, tattoos, body scarification, and dental ornamentation (grills, for those who listen to hip-hop). There’s even a photo of a smiling African American officer on the recruitment page on SPD’s website to drive home the department’s new diversity message. But it’s the changes that have nothing to do with appearance that are most heartening to Ortega: SPD plans to work with community organizations like El Centro de la Raza to earn back the trust of people it has for so long alienated. In the past, she never would have thought about recommending that members of the Latino community apply. Will she now? She doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.”

Published: July 2013

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