On the morning of Aug. 9, a young man by the name of Eugene Nelson was fatally shot by police in Kent. For Andre Taylor, this topic hits uncomfortably close to home — his brother Che was killed at the hands of Seattle police on Feb. 21, 2016.
“When somebody passes, we take a moment of silence,” said Taylor, chair of Not This Time, to a room full of community members at a forum hosted by the grassroots organization on Wednesday, Aug. 9. Not This Time is dedicated to reducing fatal police shootings that often involved people of color.
Also in attendance was the family of Charleena Lyles, who was killed by Seattle police on June 18.
Twenty-three people have been killed by Washington police so far in 2017, and many community members have found it increasingly difficult to feel hopeful that the situation will be remedied anytime soon.
Advocates for police accountability say implicit biases coupled with a lack of accountability in the police force can produce dangerous outcomes for the black community.
“Officers bring biases into their work, and when a gun is involved in a split-second decision, the results can be tragic,” said Taylor, referring to institutional racism.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart said many officers do make the split-second decision not to shoot, and “almost always that is a good decision.”
Cynthia Softli, president of the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington (BLEAW), admits that as an African-American woman, she occasionally succumbs to implicit racial biases. “My immediate reaction is not where it should be,” she said, describing a hypothetical reaction to seeing a group of black teenagers congregated on a street corner. “But that’s okay. We just have to admit that and embrace it.”
Officers who have killed someone often say they used fatal force due to fear for their life. “Historically speaking, people of color have had far more to fear than police officers ever have,” Taylor said. “In my brother’s case … the officers said they feared for their lives. We’ve allowed this narrative in the community.”
Urquhart agreed, adding that he too often hears this excuse from officers who decide to shoot. “[Fear] tends to justify a lot of things,” he said. “But was their fear justified?”
At one point during the forum, Taylor posed a question: “Is there such a thing as a good officer seeing another officer doing something bad and not saying something about it?”
The answer to this question would presumably be “no,” Taylor said, although historically the repercussions for an officer standing up for what’s right have not been good.
He said he had previously asked the same question to Mayor Ed Murray, and he could not come up with an answer.
Organization like Not This Time are working hard to build trust between communities of color and the police to remedy the situation.
Urquhart is quite proud of how far the King County Sheriff’s Office has come. They’re taking steps to hire a more diverse range of officers, he said, including more women and people of color, to try to minimize racial biases.
“Twenty years ago, nobody was firing police officers [for fatal shootings]. It is a significant feat for the police department to fire officers,” one audience member said.
Urquhart said he is set on getting body cameras for his deputies.
“I am sick and tired of waiting around to get [them],” he said. “Damn the cost. We are going to do it.”
Taylor is also part of the leadership team for Initiative 940, which would reform police training and accountability by requiring law enforcement officers to receive training on violence de-escalation, mental health and first aid.
Urquhart and the BLEAW have endorsed the De-Escalate Washington initiative.
Perhaps at the most fundamental level, “[officers] have to have relationships with members of the community,” said Carlos Bratcher, a National Black Police Association board member. “I’ve established a relationship with some of these kids. You have to know the community that you work in.”
The audience’s frustration with the current system came through at certain times throughout the forum, but the speakers said they remain hopeful.“We have to give room for people to evolve,” Taylor said. “We must allow for that involvement and support.”