Working to amplify the community voice in law enforcement

To know what is really going on and determine the challenges facing a community

By Samantha Malott
Moscow-Pullman Daily News

SEATTLE — As the executive director for the Seattle Community Police Commission, Fe Lopez said the most important thing she has learned about community engagement has been to “shut up.”

Traditionally engagement is thought of as “we are going to go out and tell them what we are doing,” she said. To know what is really going on and determine the challenges facing a community, she has to listen, she said.

“There are issues I would have never known had I not shut up and just listened,” she said.

Lopez spoke to a packed room on the Washington State University campus Monday as part of the WSU common reading program in collaboration with the WSU pre-law resource center.

The Seattle Community Police Commission was established in 2010 following a series of events involving minorities that prompted 34 multicultural organizations to work with the Latino/a Bar Association and American Civil Liberties Union to ask for an investigation of the Seattle Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lopez said the nine-month-long investigation found that the SPD used excessive force, but because of a lack of data, it could not say the SPD was biased in its policing. Just because it couldn’t be shown, doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening, she said. The city accepted a settlement agreement and a memorandum of understanding, which mandated department reform, she said.

The 15-person CPC consists of 13 advocates and two Seattle police officers. It was the first time the community’s voice was institutionalized in a reform process, she said.

Lopez said the commission was tasked with looking at hiring, training, policies, policy enforcement, data collection and how to report it all back to the community.

“The problem is we don’t talk about these things. We don’t talk about race,” she said. “If we don’t, we are going to miss things.”

Along with transparency there has to be access, she said. Many police departments use surveys to determine public perception, but those surveys typically don’t reach those who are homeless, don’t speak English or don’t have a phone or Internet, she said. There needs to be multiple lines of accessibility, she said.

No matter how big or small a community, there are going to be affected groups who need access, she said. In some communities the only way to file a complaint is to go into the police department, which may not be possible for some due to a disability, language barrier or fear.

Lopez said in immigrant communities there may be cultural differences with how the community interacts with police. Others may have had negative experiences and still harbor fear. The officers should know that and go into those communities to learn these things, she said.

According to the CPC’s assessment of the Seattle Police Department’s community engagement, the SPD has a more diverse workforce compared to other agencies, but its recruitment, hiring and field training programs lack strategies for engaging and understanding the diverse communities it serves.

Lopez said the CPC acknowledges there is a difference between just getting information out and engaging the community in order to move forward on changes within a department.

With a recent officer-involved shooting in Seattle, there was so little trust in police from within the black community that the internal investigation process frightened them even more, she said. Lopez said even if the investigation is done correctly, the community still isn’t going to trust the results. That is something the commission can identify as an issue and look for solutions, like conducting an independent review policy, she said.

More agencies are beginning to look at the CPC model, she said, but not every community is going to need to the same system. They will have to identify their own needs, but there will have to be meaningful engagement and partnerships established to succeed, she said.

Copyright 2016 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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