Renton Police Department and the Renton African American Pastoral Group (RAAP) continued their efforts to create dialogue between Renton’s youth, pastors and police officers at their Unity Forum on Nov. 8.
Held at Harambee Church downtown, youth from Renton’s CryOut! attended with coordination from director of CryOut! Christopher Robinson and the city. Robinson opened the meeting asking that everyone attending come with an “open mind, ready to learn, ready to see and to communicate.”
Chief Ed VanValey and Rev. Dr. Linda Smith began the forum talking about the importance of young people’s authentic voices and RAAP’s past.
VanValey asked the room what happened August 2014, and a few answered out: Ferguson.
The death of Michael Brown, and unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. VanValey said much has happened since then. Transparency and practices of law enforcement around the country came into question, and law enforcement needed to change how they conducted business, he said.
“As we look at policies and procedures, we thought, ‘OK, how to do we get out in the community, in the black community, and pull away the curtain,’” he said at the forum. “How do we handle this, how do we hold our police accountable, handle use of force, those kinds of things?”
He said they needed to reach beyond social media and teamed up with community pastors.
The relationship was formed in March 2015, and they’ve had two Unity walks, forums held at community churches, and monthly discussions since then. The vision of RAAP is to “create a community of trust through collaborative efforts” and their purpose is “identify barriers and opportunities” for the goal of “becoming an informed, inclusive city with opportunities for all.”
The meeting showed a video created by Renton Police of a routine check of a potential burglary in process. The forum then broke into groups with two officers, teens and other community members at each table to discuss the video and ask questions to police officers. A member of each table took notes. VanValey said they were there to be accessible to youth and answer questions. Police also handed out brochures at the event titled “What to do When Stopped by Police.”
Smith said while she hoped for a greater turnout, any 25 people you can reach out to counts. She also observed young people really engaged in the event, voicing their concerns and opinions, as well as their ideas of ways to strengthen relationships in the community.
The video included two teenagers, a white young woman and black young man, being questioned for trespassing, after officers received a call about a possible burglary. Community members at tables had an issue with the procedure of the pat-and-search that took place. The young woman’s hands were free but the young man’s hands were not. Smith said the video was a moment of reflection for those participating about what police do or don’t do handling these situations. She said she thought every table identified this disparity in how officers engage in people of different backgrounds and races.
“That’s really one of the issues that we hear most often as community leaders, about the disparity in treatment in terms of, particularly, young black males in police departments opposed to other people,” Smith said. “So that’s one of the things we’ve been working on trying to create awareness about and having the police department become more sensitive towards those particular issues.”
In a three-part series from 2015 from the Renton Reporter archives about police use-of-force and community relations, community members, including Robinson, said that while Renton police were getting it right most of the time, more could be done to reach out to communities of color. That sentiment continues to ground the work done at the recent Unity Forum.
“I feel like city of Renton is moving forward, out of my experience, it is different from different interactions I have with the cops. But that’s one of the problems that we have because we still bunch all of the cops (together.) If I see a cop in Seattle do something or a cop in Bellevue, to me it’s just the same thing, to a lot of citizens,” Robinson said. “Because we’re not able to distinct between cops here and there, so honestly just education on both parts can really help.”
Both sides or both parts were a common theme when the tables regrouped and summarized their discussions. Two of the tables mentioned understanding the fear and tension from both parties at something like a traffic stop, and how the calm, cooperative nature of the youth and cops in the video is not always how it would play out in real life where communication can quickly deteriorate. A conclusion some tables came to was the importance of an officer explaining to a person why they are talking to or handcuffing them beforehand.
“I think one of the things is for the police department and force to be able to understand what happens in communities and be able to understand, particularly around African American males and their encounters with them,” Smith said. “So whether or not they assume they’re committing a crime, be able to talk to them and understand.”
A young man at one table said he had many incidents being stopped while walking down the street for being a potential suspect in south Seattle. Another mentioned he gets stopped at least twice a day there or in Kent. Another talked about an incident in Tacoma with an older friend while walking at night. Many tables had youth and adults of color who talked about their experiences in other jurisdictions, but one young man said it also happened twice to him in Renton, where he felt accused for walking down the street while black. He also said he spoke to the department’s human resources and learned he could report the incidents.
The officer at his table said he was glad he talked to human resources, and events like this are a great way to help teach youth about their rights and educate.
Smith said she noticed officers were more engaged and open to listening at this particular Unity Forum.
She said she’s seen more involvement in community events from the police department, including the Juneteenth event this summer, going out to youth and groups and having conversations, and keeping in contact with Smith to inform her about what’s going on in the city to keep RAAP informed. Smith said they’ve also seen reduction in the disparity of traffic violations, and began facilitated mediations with community members, including earlier this summer when RAAP, the police department and a young man sat down and had a dialogue with him about his reaction to the way they approached him.
“So I think some of these things have enabled (the police department) to step back from what they’re doing, and continue to train their officers in appropriate ways, in terms of how they approach an encounter with people who are suspects,” she said.
VanValey said there will be more of these events in the future, and hopes to expand this program and reach out to other minority communities in Renton.
“This means more to us than you will ever know,” VanValey said of the forum as they wrapped up.
Smith concluded by mentioning the shooting in Thousand Oaks that happened the day before, and how an officer lost their life to save others. She said she often likes to end reminding folks that officers aren’t the enemy and save lives.
“It’s a matter of honoring each side, it’s a place we’re trying to cultivate and develop over time,” Smith said.