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My Perception Problem with the Police

I feel like I'm adding my voice to a cacophany, but as an adult who wants to contribute to this society that I feel more and more disconnected from, I need to organize my thoughts in a way that isn't just feeling afraid, or angry, or even just tired. This morning I rode my bicycle by an immigration protest on 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle. It looked like a police convention. It may be an exageration of perception, but it was a small protest, and it felt like there was a 3 to one ratio of police to protestors. There were 2-3 city blocks totally closed off, including police tape blocking the sidewalks and bikelanes, and there were cops directing traffic for 2 more blocks on either side of the blocks that were shut down.

I know better than to make a smart assed comment. I understand that the police have a more and more difficult, yet thankless job to do. I understand that their level of fear hsa gone up with the antagonistic relationship that's come between communities and police. This is why I try to have empathy rather than anger when I routinely see traffic stops that end up with 2-4 patrol cars to 1 car stopped.

I recently moved to Seattle from Chicago. I don't really know what the police department's relationship with the community is here, and my interactions with police are heavily informed by the poor relationship I experienced in Chicago. I was connected with a primarily Mexican community in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood for many years — I volunteered teaching English as a Second Language classes at a local community center that was involved in the immigrant activism community. While I generally stayed out of the activism part of the organization, I spent a good amount of time talking to both students and community folks about their struggles, their community, their relationship with folks around them. You know the relationship with the police is broken when little old ladies are afraid to call the police.

Policing doesn't work when people are afraid of the police, when people feel like the police are above the law — that they operate under different rules than the rest of us. In Chicago, we had a major problem (among many) where undocumented immigrants were afraid to call the police and/or report crimes for fear of ICE intervening. This helped contribute to gangs and drug trafficking going unchecked. However, many of the people I talked to were legal immigrants, who also did not want to call the police. These people had stories of disrespect, brutality, antagonism, and intimidation.

Seattle is currently in the grips of a crisis with homelessness and rising housing prices. I have largely stayed ignorant of the issues involved, mostly selfishly. I'm trying to get to know people and, in general, I don't feel at home enough here to think that I have a right to comment on the local politics (yet). And this sucks — but politics can be alienating... especially with how divisive our political climate is right now. I generally try to focus my energy on things that can build empathy. Still, my partner volunteers helping at a legal clinic for folks who are facing eviction — I should be more informed.

I ride my bike to work on a regular basis. For the first many months that I lived here, I rode by a homeless man's camp under the west seattle bridge. A little over a month ago I was riding by his camp and saw police taking this man away in handcuffs. Not two police officers... at least 6. With 4-5 patrol cars. For one homeless man. The next time I rode by, his camp and tent were gone. Like he never existed.

Now, I don't know anything about this situation. Maybe this man was violent. Maybe he assautled someone — it could have even been a bicycle commuter. Or maybe he had some kind of mental health issue and they were trying to help him. Its all speculation... the truth is I know nothing but what I saw.

If I could tell police officers and police departments in this country anything, it would be this: perception matters. All of the things that I mention make me feel less like the police are here to be a service for me or my community or our society. When I hear stories like the one about Laquan McDonald, the 17 year old boy who was shot 16 times by police in Chicago in 2014, I think "of course he was shot 16 times... there were probably 8 cops there." This is not true, to my knowlege. Only one officer, Jason Van Dyke, was indicted. I don't know which is worse.

Why does a police officer think he needs to shoot a black teen who's walking away from him? If you can answer that, here's another question: Why does he need to fire 16 SHOTS? Who is training these people?

Would it maybe make sense for police captains to direct their officers that "hey, if one or two officers have stopped someone, you can assume they've got it, we don't need the public seeing 4 cop cars for a minor traffic violation." Or hey, I'll be even more generous, maybe they could realize and say more often "we need the public's trust." Because you don't have it.

seattle protest

This morning's protesters were no gems. The biggest sign said "Chinga La Migra." Roughly translated this means "fuck ICE." This is not really my flavor of public discourse. I understand their frustration, don't get me wrong.. but I don't think that's the kind of rhetoric that's going to make change. Still... it was a relatively small and peaceful protest that had what felt like a disproportionate police response. Later in the day I saw that 9 people were arrested for laying down in the street. The police may have done what they needed to do in this instance, but that doesn't mean we should take it flippantly. The right to peaceful protest is one of the things that makes this country great. I don't support the current policies of ICE, and I totally support people's right to protest. I have read of cases where the Seattle police in particular have attempted to be more supportive of protestors. This didn't feel like one of those instances.

When I went through the traffic cops on my bike headed away from the protest, toward my job, I was stopped at a red light with a traffic cop there. When the light turned green, he waved me through and I rolled my eyes. The cop said, think with sarcasm, "I'm allowing you through." I felt nothing but arrogance, condescension, and superiority from him. The light was green.

I don't know what the solution is. I don't know how we make this better. This example is so minor, so petty compared to so many stories out there. But this is the kind of thing that happens every day that builds up to a lack of trust. Change can't happen overnight, but the police have the power — they need to make more of an effort, and a public effort, to extend an olive branch. Perception matters. Its not enough to have "to protect and serve" written on the side of your car... you need to be showing us that you actually believe it.

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