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Beyond Ferguson: Roundtable Discussion

March 19, 2015

Deborah Wang sits down with Sue Rahr, Executive Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Commission, Rev. Aaron William, Senior Pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and Jennifer Shaw, Deputy Director of the ACLU in Washington, to talk about the culture and mindset as well as the pressures that are put on the police.

Deborah Wang: Earlier this month, the President’s task force on 21st century policing released a number of recommendations aimed at bridging the mistrust that exists between many police departments and the communities they serve. The task force was created in response to the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Among those named by the President to the 11-member task force was Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, and she joins us now along with the Reverend Aaron Williams, senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church here in Seattle. And Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU in Washington, to talk about the task force and its recommendations, welcome to all of you.

All: Thank you.

Wang: Sue Rahr, I want to start with you because the very first recommendation in this giant group of recommendations is something that you’ve been talking about for a number of years and that is there really needs to be culture change in police departments for anything meaningful to happen. What’s that all about?

Sue Rahr: Well you can make all kinds of policies and you can make all kinds of rules, but the culture is what’s really going to control the behavior of the officers and I felt that when I started at the academy a couple of years ago, I coined the phrase ‘moving from a culture and a mindset of warriors, to a culture of guardians.’ Warriors are trained to conquer, guardians are trained to protect and I really wanted to move the emphasis more to protection, and, and emphasize the fact that our police officers need to see themselves as part of the community, rather than a force from the outside coming in to control.

"Warriors are trained to conquer, guardians are trained to protect and I really wanted to move the emphasis more to protection, and"

Wang: How hard is it to make that change cause it sounds, it sounds very reasonable, it seems like it makes a lot of sense. But is there a push back to this?

Rahr: When I talk about moving the culture from warriors to guardians, some people fear that by abusing those terms, that somehow I’m saying officers have to fight. Which is not true—sometimes they have to. But, but fighting is a skill. That’s one skill that a guardian has. But I’m talking about the mindset, I’m talking about the role the police officer sees themselves fulfilling. And in a democracy, that role needs to be a guardian, a protector, not a conqueror.  

Wang: For the two of you, does that sound like a good place to start in terms of changing the culture?

Rev. Aaron Williams: I think it’s an excellent place to start. I think that’s what the community feels, it feels like they are, they’re warriors; there’s a ‘us against them’ mentality. Police officers need to feel, or the community needs to feel like they are with us, they are for us, they are protecting us. And so that’s a huge culture shift that needs to take place.

Jennifer Shaw: And it’s interesting because it’s actually taking us back to the roots of policing in this country and actually in England as well. You know the idea was that we would have police on the streets to help when there are problems. Not so much out and trying to find people you know, violating some, some rule but when some, when there was a problem, there would be police there and they were not the military. It was very clear that there is a distinction between policing, which is a, as a concept of policing by consent where the community is saying ‘yes, please come in and help us keep the peace,” versus warriors or the military.

Wang: Of course Seattle is going through a period where we’ve had the Department of Justice, of looking at excessive use of force here in the city and a lot of reform that’s going on now. Are you feeling that at the community level do you do see changes being made?

"I think the discussion is taking place and we're moving in the right direction"

Williams: This seems to be a commitment from the SPD and as well as the community at large, of sitting down at the table and listening to one another, and not just speaking to one another but actually getting, getting a sense of how that person feels in the community that has been mistreated. So I think the discussion is taking place and we're moving in the right direction.

Shaw: There are new policies on use of force in on, you know, governing the way people are, can be stopped on the streets and, there's a new bias re-policing policy and training that’s going into effect. There's a lot happening and we are asking a lot of those police officers, I think it's still going to be a couple of years, though, of training and consistent leadership before we'll really see a completely transformed Seattle Police Department.

Wang: Another recommendation was increasing diversity in police departments to make sure they represent the communities that they serve. I know this has been talked about in Seattle for years, and I think when the last mayor, Mayor McGinn brought this up, there was something like a seventeen percent, seventy percent of Seattle Police officers live in the city of Seattle, I don't know if it's changed since then. How important is this and, and are we making any, any strides in making our police departments more diverse?

Rahr: Well I think everybody, when I talk to chiefs and sheriffs, at least in this state, everybody is trying to, to create a more diverse workforce, but frankly it really comes down to having a profession that people aspire to be part of. And if you have a community that doesn't have a positive impression of a profession, they're not likely to want to join that profession, so I think you know, we can try doing more effective recruiting campaigns, but at the end of the day we have to build that trust first before, before that young person is going to make the decision, ‘I wanna be that person that I look up to.

Shaw: And if the culture it hasn't changed, and getting back to the culture issue, the culture hasn't changed then you can recruit diverse candidates but they're gonna feel really abandoned once they start in the department if they, if it's the same you know, if it’s the status quo. You really need the, you need the officers to feel supported, diverse officers to feel supported, women to feel supported within the department. And they need to know that that they are, are going to be you know, representing the communities that they come from instead of oppressing the communities they come from.

Wang: Reverend Williams, how important is it for you to see more officers who are actually living in your community?

Williams: I think it’s critical, I think it’s very critical. As I talked with some of the young men who are members of our church and some other people who are members of our church, they want people who look like them, they want people who understand them. I think many times when, when we don't know one another, we tend to dehumanize one another, we need to recognize the humanity that is in every person, whether they look like us or not. So I think it’s critical.

Rahr: I think it's also important that, to look at diversity behind race and gender as well because, life experience is so important. If you have grown up in, you know, in an upper middle class family where you felt safe and you were well supported, it's hard to be empathetic to somebody who has grown up in an extremely difficult environment, cause you’re not as likely to understand why they might be acting out the way they are and, I'm always pleased during the first week of any academy. We have the recruits talk about their background and when I hear somebody, we've had social workers, we've had people from really, really different backgrounds compared to thirty-five years ago when I came on, that life, that life experience wasn't as diverse back then.

Wang: Are we asking too much of our police officers, I mean we want them to be, to have great social skills, be psychologists, social workers, you know, and they’re in these environments where there, you know there's a lot of people suffering from mental illness where, you know the really challenging urban environments?

Williams: Some police officers are task-oriented, some are people-oriented. And I think the ones who are people-oriented, that’s the basic characteristic that a police officer needs to have, to be people-oriented. When a police officer is people-oriented, they can kinda adjust to what's going on and interact with that person but if they’re task-oriented, they probably need to be in another area.

"I think law enforcement inherits the failures of all of our other social systems"

Rahr: Well with the way I see it, I think law enforcement inherits the failures of all of our other social systems and so all the problems that no other system could fix land in the lap of law enforcement and so we want people, we use the term that ‘can run, rope and shoot’ but also be empathetic. What's more realistic is a team of that type of person exists and so when we're working together with our entire patrol squad and with the community, you cover all those spaces, it doesn't all have to be inside one human being.

Wang: Well thank you so much for talking with us about this, Sue Rahr, Jennifer Shaw and Reverend Aaron Williams, thank you.

All: Thank you.


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Deborah Wang

Deborah Wang is host of IN Close, the weekly public affairs program on KCTS 9 that features in-depth stories from across the Pacific Northwest.

She is also a news and feature reporter for KUOW Public Radio in Seattle. She covers a range of subjects, but mainly focuses on politics.

Deborah is an award–winning radio and television journalist whose career spans close to three decades. A long–time network foreign correspondent, she has reported from close to two dozen countries, including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Rwanda, Kuwait, and Iraq.

Deborah's first reporting job was at public radio station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she filled just about every role at the station, from newscaster to reporter to show host to news director. In 1988, she transitioned from radio to public television, working as a reporter and fill-in host at “The Ten O’Clock News” on WGBH-TV in Boston. In 1990, Deborah went to work for National Public Radio, serving as NPR's Asia correspondent based in Hong Kong. In 1993, ABC News hired Deborah to be a television correspondent based in Beijing, where she covered, among other things, Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule. In 1999, she set up the network's first news bureau in Seattle.

Deborah has also worked as a news anchor for CNN International, and as a fill-in host for the nationally syndicated public radio show “Here and Now.”

Deborah has won numerous awards for her reporting, including the Alfred I. DuPont Silver Baton for coverage of the first Gulf War, and the Overseas Press Club's Lowell Thomas Award for best radio documentary on Cambodia.

More stories by Deborah Wang

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