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King County Sheriff John Urquhart Interview

March 12, 2015

Last month, FBI Director James Comey delivered an unusually candid speech about race and law enforcement in which he acknowledged that there’s a lack of trust between police and communities of color.

In Close producer Enrique Cerna talked with King County Sheriff John Urquhart about Comey’s remarks and the challenges the Sheriff and his department face in trying to build trust.

King County Sheriff Urquhart:  Well I certainly don’t disagree with Director Comey at all. All across the country, some worse than others certainly, but it exists in the Northwest as well. So my challenge as a sheriff or any police chief, or any police officer, is how do we bridge that gap? How do we do that? And obviously if we had the answer, we’d be doing better at it than we have been doing.

Enrique Cerna: One of the things that he said in his speech is that. That is a tough thing to say, and do you feel that?

FBI Director James Comey: …“Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.”

Enrique Cerna:. That is a tough thing to say, and do you feel that?

Urquhart: I do feel that, it’s a tough thing to say, it’s a controversial thing to say, I’m glad he said it. But I think it’s absolutely true; you can’t work in that kind of emotionally charged environment without letting it affect you. The trick is, in my challenge and any police officer’s challenge is, not let it get to you. I think if you realize it, if you talk about it and you know about it, it’s much easier to suppress those feelings, understand where they’re coming from, and then deal with them.

Cerna: You know, talking about not letting it get to you, you and I were involved in a town hall in south King County right after Ferguson, in SeaTac area. I was moderating, you were one of the people on the panel, along with the King County prosecutor. People were angry. Especially people in the black community, and they really kind of hit you hard. How do you then respond, and realize, that anger is out there, and then deal with it?

Urquhart: I understand that, uh it’s frustrating, you have to sit there and grit your teeth and be called names, they accuse you of things you didn’t do, have your police agency that you, in my case, been a part of for 30 some years, be accused of things I know didn’t happen. But I think the important thing is not to lash out, to understand where that frustration is coming from, because I think that’s what’s generating it. The people that were in SeaTac that night, they’re not evil, they’re not bad people, but they were exceedingly frustrated. And if I understand that, not only does it make it easier for me to sit there, and understand where it’s coming from and take that venom, but it makes it easier the next day to look back on it and say, “yeah that was tough,” but these people have legitimate frustrations, things that I as a sheriff have to deal with, we as a society have to deal with; it’s not just up to the police, it’s not just us, it’s society. A lot of the crime problems come out of poverty, I think that’s very well-known and you’ve said that. Coming out of poverty, I can’t fix poverty. All I can do is understand it, understand the frustration, deal with the crime. Because I still have to deal with that crime, but  understand where it’s coming from

Cerna: You know, one thing the FBI Director also said was that there needed to be a national conversation about race. That night as I was watching, you know the people just lash out and things like that, it made me think how can we have that conversation. But it also made me think though, yes, we really need that.

Urquhart: we can’t be afraid to talk about race. And the impact it that has on everyone, including my deputies.   

Cerna: What do you tell them?

Urquhart: I tell them same thing I said here is, understand where that frustration is coming from. Deal with it. Understand it. Don’t fall victim and don’t become a victim of it, is what I try to tell them the most.  And then I try to figure out how I’m going to change my department, because we need to be, my police department needs to be changed. There’s no question about that. And it doesn’t happen overnight.  Much as I want it to happen overnight, much as the community wants me to change my police agency overnight, that’s not gonna happen, and that’s very frustrating to me.

Cerna: How do you want to change?

Urquhart:  Well I want it to be more diverse, first of all. I mean, we’re about four percent African-American, we should be at least eight percent, just to reflect the community. We don’t have nearly enough women, there’s a gender issue that we’re going through as well. We’ve got to change that, we need more people of all colors, not just African-Americans. Look at, look at King County especially, and there’s all kinds of different races, all kinds of different kinds of ethnicities, and until they become part of the Sheriff’s office, until the Sheriff’s office mirrors the community, we will not be successful. There’s just absolutely no doubt in my mind we will not be successful as a police department.

Cerna: So what’s stopping you from making that change?

Urquhart: Civil service, is one of the problems we’re having. People have to take tests, and I’m bound by law to go through that; I can’t use affirmative action that we used in the past that occurred when I applied for the Sheriff’s Office.

Cerna: And they shouldn’t have, right?

Urquhart: And I should’ve told them to put a stop to that, but you know, the irony is of course I was delayed…affirmative action delayed me getting hired six, seven months. And then I was hired. Look where I am now. So it kept me from, big deal, whoop-dee-do, I didn’t get hired for seven months, and yet affirmative action is criticized. But that’s one of the ways we can diversify the police department. Other changes I’ve made: I’ve talked about this before, if you speak a second language, if you speak a second language you can get an extra ten percent on that civil service test. That’s a big deal, that will get people hired. Nobody else,  certainly in the Northwest, maybe in the country is doing that. That’s another way I can diversify my police department. If you’ve been in the Peace Corps for two years, you get that extra ten percent. Not a race thing, but it brings a different viewpoint to the Sheriff’s Office, and I want to do that as well. I need to get people out of their patrol cars. It’s hard to be mad at somebody when you, when you know who they are. When you talk to them.  I’ve got to get my deputies out of their patrol cars. Right now they drive around in their air conditioned office.  They’ve got their computer, they got the internet, they’ve got a cell phone, most of the time they have no reason to get out when they have nothing else to do, a lot of the time we’re just driving around. Stop and talk to people. That’s a cultural change I’m trying to make.

Cerna: What would you tell a young person of color if they are stopped by one of your sheriff deputies?

 Urquhart: I would tell a young person of color the same thing I would tell my son or my daughter. I would tell them, “Do what the police officer tells you to do, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t argue, argue it in court.” Why should there be special instructions because you are African-American? I mean I understand why we do that, but what a shame. You know, what an outrage that people have to have, and you and I talked about it before this started: the talk. Why do parents need to have the talk with their child of color? That’s outrageous. In this day and age, in this country, in the Northwest, that’s outrageous. We’ve gotta get away from that. And that’s my responsibility as much as it is everybody else’s.

Cerna: 2015, and yet we are still talking about all this.

Urquhart: 2015, that’s absolutely right.

Cerna: It’s seemed to be as challenged and divided as ever.

Urquhart: Well, I don’t have that pessimistic view, I don’t think we are. I’m exceedingly frustrated by the slow pace. Unbelievably frustrated by the fact we still talk about this, we still have Fergusons, we still have all these other things that we talk about, but, the thing that kinda keeps me going, is, we have an African-American president. We have legalized marijuana. We have marriage equality. I never thought any of those things would ever happen in my lifetime. I knew they would happen, but I never thought they would happen in my lifetime, and yet they have in the last ten years. So I think we are making progress. Is it fast enough? Of course not. But at least we’re making progress.

Cerna: You had one thing you wanted to say to folks out there, about police today, their work, and how, how we can all get along

Urquhart: We’re not the enemy. Give us a chance. We’re not the enemy, and you’re not the enemy. We all have to work together. We all want a better community. My deputies want a better community, and the people in those communities want it better as well. And we need to all work in that direction.

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Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna

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Mr. Cerna - Thank you for your patience and persistence in this interview with Sheriff Urquhart. I feel that your commitment to the goal of creating a more humane conversation about race in Seattle is genuine, and is consistently delivered with love.

However, it's hard to engage another person's humanity when defensiveness is so obviously a feature of his communication. Sheriff Urquhart intellectually understands only some of the goals so well-articulated in the Youth Movement, and he speaks with an underlying "us/them" habit, regardless of the words he chooses. He is trying.

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to hear the point of view of "power" articulated with sincerity. I only hope there will come a time when this leader can invite us (and his officers) to create community, together. To that end, let's sit down and listen as well as talk, discussing with love, instead of speechifying.

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